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5G Faceoff on Capitol Hill

The conflict between local self-reliance advocates and the wireless industry over streamlining 5G deployment was on full display at the Senate Commerce technology subcommittee hearing on broadband infrastructure Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Industry representatives present relayed a sense of urgency that China could beat the U.S. in the race to 5G, if small-cell installation isn’t exempted from burdensome reviews required by the National Historic Preservation and National Environmental Policy acts.

Wilton Manors, Florida Mayor Gary Resnick, the panel’s lone local official, urged the senators present to give local governments more of a voice in broadband policymaking and preserve their authority to deal directly with wireless providers on permitting and leasing public rights of way.

“The [Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee] drafted a model code for states without the input of any single local official, so we do not feel right now that the [Federal Communications Commission] is serious in engaging in dialogue with local governments,” Resnick said. “And we think that that’s going to result in bad broadband policy, frankly.”

The FCC will vote to exempt small cell deployment from federal historic preservation and environmental reviews at its March 22 meeting and move on to the BDAC’s recommendations to decrease permitting times and lease costs.

All four national wireless carriers have announced accelerated deployments of 5G in 2018, to the tune of $275 billion in private capital, to keep pace with billions being spent on more than 100 active trials in China.

“Right now we are on the cusp of 5G, the fifth generation of wireless, and we are in a race; it is a global race,” said Brad Gillen, executive vice president of CTIA - The Wireless Association. “The head of Nokia noted two weeks ago we are neck and neck with China to lead the world in 5G, and this is a race that China wants to win.”

Gillen envisions having 800,000 small cells in place by 2026—more than five times the 150,000 cell towers across the U.S. installed in a third of the time. But both he and Competitive Carriers Association CEO Steve Berry, who represents smaller providers mostly, complained permitting applications can take as many as two years to approve, necessitating refiling if the technology has been upgraded in that time.

FCC rules must be modernized for timely deployment, Gillen said, deployment that always starts in the densest urban areas.

“As major wireless companies tout winning the race for 5G, too many people in New Mexico and those living on tribal lands are stuck without 1G,” said Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat representing the state. “While carriers have been vocal about what they see as delays, I hear from many rural areas and tribal communities these same carriers are refusing to build towers or serve those areas.”

Private capital alone isn’t enough to make the business case for 5G everywhere, Berry said, so more federal funding is needed. He suggested West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s Gigabit Opportunity Act, which would target broadband investments, was one possibility.

Bob DeBroux, vice president of regulatory affairs for TDS Telecom, said that Congress should increase funding to the FCC’s Alternative Connect America Cost Model and Universal Service for High Cost Areas programs. The Madison, Wisconsin-based telecommunications company used $75 million through the latter to serve 165,000 households in the Badger State and southeast Mississippi.

Small cells get their name because they provide coverage to small areas, Resnick said, so while they’re profitable downtown, that’s not the case in rural America and even parts of the “inner city” in, say, Tallahassee. Florida law doesn’t require build outs, but municipal broadband could fill the void—barring it’s not preempted by a state government, as has been the case in North Carolina and elsewhere.

“When you’re talking about ways to engage local governments and make sure the needs of our communities are met, we should not forget about the possibility of municipal broadband systems,” Resnick said. “Too often we are preempted from doing so, especially at the state level.”

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