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AT&T, Verizon take aim at Lincoln, Nebraska, as small cell battle goes local

The wireless industry continues to urge regulators at the federal, state and local levels to make it cheaper and easier for network operators and others to install wireless equipment including small cells in new locations. And some of the nation’s biggest operators are starting to single out specific cities charging what they argue are excessive small cell deployment fees.

It appears that the officials in Lincoln, Nebraska, have emerged as some of the industry’s primary antagonists.

“Verizon recently concluded that it would not deploy additional small cells in Lincoln, NE, at this time because of the $1,995/year attachment rate,” the operator said in a new filing with the FCC(PDF).

“AT&T has paused its 2018 small cell deployment plans in large part due to the city’s demand for an annual recurring fee of $1,995 per node,” added AT&T in its own filing referencing Lincoln (PDF).

Lincoln is the capital of Nebraska, and with about 284,000 residents it’s the second-most populous city in the state. But, according to two of the nation’s biggest wireless network operators, city officials are punching above their weight.

“Competitive demands will force carriers to deploy small cells in the largest cities,” AT&T explained. “But, when those largest cities charge excessive fees to access ROWs [rights of way] and municipal ROW structures, carriers’ finite capital dollars are prematurely depleted, leaving less for investment in mid-level cities and smaller communities. … Unfortunately, many mid-level cities and smaller communities also charge excessive ROW and ROW infrastructure access fees on the faulty premise that they are matching the so-called ‘market rate’ demanded by the large cities.”

Lincoln isn’t alone, of course. Operators ranging from Verizon to Sprint have pointed out what they argue are excessive fees in a variety of other locations across the country:

  • AT&T said it is “at an impasse” with the city of Oakland, California, for a deployment of 60 small cell nodes because the city is charging a recurring rate of $2,300 per node.

  • AT&T also said it has delayed its deployment in locations in Maryland due, in part, to Howard County’s nonrecurring fee of $10,000 on top of $1,800 per permit, annual recurring fees of $25,000 for ROW rights and $1,000 per small cell node.

  • Verizon said Seattle is seeking $1,872 per pole per year with a 4% escalator “resulting in minimal small cell deployment” in the city.

  • Sprint said it has deployed more than 500 small cells in the City of Los Angeles, but none in Los Angeles County partly because of $9,820 in application fees there.

At issue is carriers’ desire to densify their networks through the deployment of small cells. These devices are essentially mini cell towers that can be installed on light poles and other objects, bringing cell connections closer to users. Cities have long charged for access to such locations, but the wireless industry in general has argued excessive fees and slow permitting processes are preventing them from quickly moving to new technologies including 5G.

Not surprisingly, telecom lobbyists are working to pass new regulations at the state and federal levels that would smooth small cell deployments partly by lowering fees. Already such guidelines have been passed by the FCC and more than 20 state legislatures.

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