America’s leadership in 4G wireless technology allowed domestic companies to reap widespread benefits and become global leaders in a wide variety of industries. A report by CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, found that America’s leadership in 4G created $125 billion in revenue for domestic companies, boosted GDP, and led to an 84% increase in wireless-related jobs from 2011 to 2014. These findings suggest that leading in cutting edge wireless technology has widespread positive effects on a country’s economy. As such, it is no surprise that policy makers and industry experts want America to win the race to 5G as well.

Compared to current wireless technology, 5G, short for fifth generation wireless technology, is up to 100 times faster, has more capacity, and has lower latency. These improvements will set the stage for smart cities and remote surgery while making autonomous vehicles and connected health devices safer and more efficient. In fact, as the internet of things proliferates, 5G networks will be critical to meeting speed and capacity needs.

Recent reports suggest regulatory barriers have already put America behind in the race to 5G. Two of the most significant barriers are commercial use spectrum availability and small cell deployment.  Spectrum is the radio frequency used to transmit wireless communications. Current wireless technology relies mostly on low-band spectrum. 5G, however, uses low, mid, and high band spectrum. For companies to develop and deploy 5G networks, they will need high-band spectrum, which historically has not been available for commercial use. Luckily, the FCC has moved quickly to fix this problem and will be holding auctions for high-frequency spectrum beginning in November.

Small cell deployment, however, remains a major barrier to 5G implementation. Because high-frequency, millimeter wavelengths do not travel well through obstacles, 5G networks require much denser infrastructure. Unlike past wireless technologies that rely on large cell towers and antenna, 5G deployment will focus on small cells about the size of a pizza box. Often these small cells can be installed on existing infrastructure like street lamps and traffic lights, but some cells are attached to new 50 foot poles installed just for that purpose.

Over the past year, these small cells have sparked battles in several states as local governments fight to maintain control over the permitting and deployment process. Twenty states have passed legislation creating statewide procedures for 5G deployment. However, local entities have pushed back arguing they are in the best position to understand the unique challenges to deploying 5G infrastructure in their areas. Further, local governments take issue with state legislation that limits siting fees. These local interest effectively squashed 5G deployment legislation in California and have slowed similar legislation in other states.

Earlier this month, FCC Commissioner Brandon Carr announced the Commission would vote on federal guidelines to speed small cell deployment and limit fees. These guidelines would pre-empt local and state rules. The guidelines put a $270 per cell cap on reoccurring fees but allow higher fees if they are a “reasonable approximation” of incurred costs. The guidelines also require local governments to conclude the permitting process within 60 days for deployments on existing infrastructure and 90 days for deployments on new poles.  However, permits are not deemed granted if local governments fail to meet these deadlines. Finally the guidelines allow local governments to implement reasonable aesthetic standards.

According to an industry study, the FCC’s proposed guidelines would cut $2 billion in administrative fees, create $2.5 billion in added investment, and produce 27,000 jobs. Proponents of the FCC guidelines argue they will help America win the race to 5G and stimulate investment.  However, like the state laws, the FCC guidelines have been met with resistance by local governments that question the FCC’s authority to promulgate guidelines regulating rates and requiring local access. These localities also argue the guidelines force a one-size-fits all approach, limit local policy innovation, and will exacerbate the digital divide.

The FCC has been aggressive in clearing regulatory barriers to 5G deployment. Local governments clearly have a stake in how 5G infrastructure is deployed in their cities. However, as the race to 5G intensifies, the interests of local governments might clash with other stakeholders’ desire for quick deployment. The FCC has stepped in to ensure small cell deployment is not unduly burdened with fees and delays. Although one can argue that state legislatures or Congress are in a better position to balance the interests of industry, local governments, and the public, there is little doubt the FCC’s proposed guidelines will spur 5G deployment across the country.

Amanda Farenthold

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