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Divided FCC votes to speed 5G deployments

In a 3-2 party line vote, the Federal Communications Commission on March 22 streamlined the federal review process for next-generation 5G deployments despite concerns raised by Democratic lawmakers.

The order would exempt small wireless facilities, or small cells, from the environmental and historic review procedures required under the National Historic Preservation Act, or NHPA, and National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, two U.S. laws designed to preserve historical and archaeological sites, as well as the environment.

Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has championed the order in recent weeks, noted that the reviews required under these laws were designed for large, macrocell towers rather than small cells, the cellular base stations and antennas that will be central to the deployment of 5G services.

"5G networks will look very different from the networks of today," he said, noting that the 100-foot towers of past networks will be supplemented by hundreds of thousands of "small cell facilities no larger than the size of a backpack." He estimated that upwards of 80% of new deployments are expected to be these new small cells.

He also said the costs associated with these reviews is hindering deployment, noting wireless operators spent $36 million on NHPA and NEPA reviews. "The problem is getting worse, not better. Without reform, the projected costs for these reviews will spike to $241 million this year as 5G deployments ramp up," he said.

SNL Image
FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr, Mignon Clyburn,
Chairman Ajit Pai, Michael O'Rielly and Jessica Rosenworcel.
Source: FCC

Opposing the move, Democratic commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn said the order is based on faulty legal standing and could actually slow the deployment of 5G as the commission is forced to contend with expected legal challenges.

"If our environmental assessment process is too complex or too lengthy, we should fix it. But tossing this process out is unsupported by the record," Rosenworcel said, adding that the order "does not make us 5G ready and only guarantees a messy series of legal challenges will follow in its wake."

Beyond the review for small cells, Rosenworcel also pointed to a provision in the order that updates the tribal consultation process for larger wireless deployments located off of reservation boundaries in areas that nevertheless have tribal significance. Specifically, the commission states wireless operators "have no legal obligation to pay up-front fees" when soliciting tribal feedback on these proposed deployments. Additionally, the order sets up a timeline for deployments when a tribe does not respond.

Rosenworcel said the order "cuts Tribal authorities from their rightful role reviewing wireless facilities" and "runs roughshod" over their rights. She noted not a single tribe submitted comments expressing support for the order.

Rosenworcel's comments reflect concerns raised by several Democrats in the House of Representatives who sent letters to the commission urging the agency to reconsider its order. Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., said in a March 20 letter that Congress had included tribal consultation requirements in the NHPA to enable tribes to protect culturally significant areas, noting that the FCC order would undermine that opportunity for protection.

Similarly, Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said in a March 21 letter to the commission that the order would "eviscerate the critical environmental and transparency protections" created by the NEPA and eliminate citizens' opportunity to voice their concerns about a federal project's impact on their community.

Separately at the meeting, the FCC voted unanimously to seek input on how to more quickly route wireless 911 calls to the proper 911 call center. Currently, wireless 911 calls are routed based on the location of the cell tower that handles the call. But in some cases, a 911 call is made near a county or a city border and the call ultimately has to be rerouted, resulting in delays and slower response times. The FCC is seeking comment on how to avoid these delays in the future.

The FCC also voted unanimously to move forward on a notice of proposed rulemaking aimed at stimulating the use of the 4.9 GHz spectrum band, currently dedicated to public safety. According to the commission, although nearly 90,000 public safety entities are eligible to obtain licenses in the band, there are only 3,174 licenses in use as of 2018. The agency is hoping to make the band more attractive for use by public safety users.

In addition, the FCC unanimously voted to move forward on a notice of proposed rulemaking aimed at streamlining the reauthorization process for television satellite stations that are assigned or transferred in combination with a previously approved parent station.