FCC Commissioners Spar Over 5G Regulatory Path as Agency Nears Vote

5G wireless infrastructure technology

As the FCC prepares to vote next week on an order that would make it easier for wireless service providers to deploy small wireless antennas and other infrastructure to speed the deployment of fifth-generation–or 5G–services, two of the agency’s five commissioners discussed the pros and cons of taking that course at an event organized by Politico.

The agency is slated to vote on Sept. 26 on a wireless infrastructure order that would change current rules to establish “shot clocks” for state and local authorities to rule on applications to deploy “small” wireless facilities–5G infrastructure deployments typically are much smaller in size than the larger equipment deployed to enable earlier generations of wireless service–and would “provide guidance on streamlining” state and local requirements on wireless infrastructure deployment.

While the outcome of the vote is unknowable today, and the FCC has entered a “quiet” period prior to the vote that prohibits further lobbying on the issue, the Commission’s three-Republican majority often votes in lockstep, and it is likely that the order will be approved.

Speaking at today’s Politico event, Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr said that while the FCC is  taking steps to make more spectrum available over the next few years to facilitate 5G service, the agency also needs to act quickly on infrastructure siting issues in order to boost cell-site deployments.

He estimated there are between 200,000 and 300,000 cell sites in the U.S. today, but that “we need a many-fold increase” in cell sites to fully enable 5G services–as much as 60,000 new site deployments per year.

He said the order up for a vote next week would allow localities to collect “reasonable” fees for infrastructure deployments, update local application “shot clock” deadlines to take into account the smaller size of 5G infrastructure, and provide “reasonable consideration” for aesthetic concerns.

He also pointed to heavy investments in 5G service deployments by China and other countries, and warned the U.S. can’t afford to fall behind on developing and deploying the next generation of wireless services. “The decision we plan for next week will help close that gap against China,” he said.

As for a Trump administration idea reported in January to centralize 5G networks in the U.S. so as to safeguard them against cybersecurity and economic threats, Carr said today that idea was a “non-starter in my opinion,” echoing statements earlier this year from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was just as enthusiastic as Carr about encouraging carriers to deploy 5G infrastructure and services, but said the FCC should find ways to “incentivize states and localities to be our partners” in infrastructure deployment rather than approve an order that overturns their existing rules.

“I’m not sure a few bureaucrats in Washington can do that,” she said, and warned that approval of the wireless infrastructure order next week “may only speed our way to the courts.”

She said the FCC was on the cusp of issuing a ruling that would “invalidate so many plans” already put in place by cities and counties, and predicted that “we are going to have a lot of litigation” as a result.

“Carrots are going to be much better here than sticks,” she said of providing incentives to localities to permit further and faster wireless equipment deployments.

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