The race to 5G dominates the wireless news for good reason: 5G will use an array of new techniques and technologies to vastly expand wireless capabilities. A key enabler will be frequencies that are higher than those used for mass telecommunications in the past. Singles in these frequencies are easily blocked and don't travel as far.
This is a big deal. It means that a new layer of small cells must be inserted between end users and macro cell towers. One of the many challenges of introducing small cells is placing them. They aren't as small as the name implies and there will be a lot of them.
Municipalities are center stage in the rollout of small cells because utilities are reluctant to lease space on their poles, according to Ken Schmidt, the president of Steel in the Air, a national wireless infrastructure evaluation specialist. Utilities clearly don’t want to be forced to accommodate small cells. They feel that the historical record shows that leasing space on their poles to competitive telecommunications providers is a logistical nightmare and that the remuneration rates set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are too low.
They expect small cell deployments to cause the same problems. This time around, the dynamic may pit the wireless providers against municipalities. "The same thing is happening again," Schmidt said. "For municipalities under the current rate schedules to allow pole attachment is in fact a disincentive."
Competition? Cooperation? Too Early to Tell
It remains to be seen if cooperation or competition prevail. "Municipal approvals for small cells in the right of way are very difficult in some communities and easier in others,” Joshua Broder, the CEO of Tilson, a network construction company, told IT Business Edge. "There are major differences in state law which give municipalities varying amounts of autonomy. In all cases, when carriers partner with communities and engage with them on their specific needs, it goes easier."
At this point, Schmidt said, the opposition has not gained too much traction because most of the small cell activity has been in industrial and commercial areas. He believes that will change when wireless providers start asking to deploy in residential neighborhoods. They can be considered unsightly and people have concerns, rightly or wrongly, about radiation.
The action will heat up when 5G deployments begin targeting residential areas. "There is starting to be pushback in residential areas," Schmidt said. "More importantly, when there is opposition, it is well organized and it is vehement. I expect to see more and more as [small cells] start to come into residential areas."
Schmidt, who says the issue is in the "top of the first inning," says that the FCC likely will weigh in on some issues, such as providing structure to the citing approval process and, perhaps, demanding more consistency in agreements between the players. That could address the tactic of municipalities with wireless providers of using agreements that are artificially long and difficult to fill out. "There needs to be some consistency, especially if it is a goal to expand and increase for-profit wireless services and potentially public broadband services."
The FCC Will Have a Say
The FCC indeed has weighed in, though not precisely on the issues Schmidt brought up. On December 4, the FCC ruled that providers must provide access to each other and that "make-ready" charges cannot be levied on a second provider if costs were recovered from the previous provider using the pole, according to RCR Wireless.
Craig Settles, a municipal consultant with decades of experience in how the regulatory world operates, told IT Business Edge that incumbents may be using 5G as a way to gain a broader advantage. He said that if incumbents convince federal regulators that small cells are a necessary element of ushering in advanced services, they will make it a priority and in the process chill the rights of municipalities to control their own infrastructures. "If they use the 5G mantra as a way to get legislation at the state and local level prohibited, it’s a two for one deal," he said. "They sold a bill of goods to the public [about 5G] and nixed the public's ability to pass laws that the incumbents don’t like. That is the thing happening in today's FCC."
The emergence of 5G will change the world of telecommunications because it will put wired and wireless communications on a more or less equal playing field. To do so, however, some heavy changes will need to be made to today's infrastructure. Small cells, and the regulatory challenges that come with their deployment, will be a significant issue as the rollout occurs.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.