Small Cell Fight Carries Big Stakes for Sprint, AT&T

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By Lydia Beyoud

A private wireless infrastructure company’s running battle with cities and towns across the U.S. may have a far-reaching impact on plans by Sprint Corp., AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to build next-generation wireless networks that can handle billions of connected devices in the burgeoning internet of things.

The new networks depend on “small cells”, equipment that can handle wireless traffic within a radius of about two city blocks. Mobilitie LLC, the infrastructure company, has embarked on a massive nationwide effort for Sprint to install small cells in cities and towns from San Antonio, Texas to Bloomfield, N.J. to Daleville, Ga. Sprint is one of Mobilitie’s top clients, though it says it works with all major telecom carriers.

Sprint declined to comment for this story.

To cover a town with “5G” fifth-generation wireless broadband service, wireless companies need to deploy dozens to hundreds of small cells. The infrastructure required for a small cell network varies from equipment the size of a large shoebox attached to existing utility poles to new, 120-foot poles. Under pressure from wireless providers and contractors like Mobilitie, towns and cities nationwide are resisting a “one-size-fits-all” permitting approach that could deprive them of oversight of public property.

For the wireless industry, keeping network deployment costs down is crucial to earning a profit. Saying that some local officials have sought what the company sees as excessively high fees for each installation permit, Mobilitie in November 2016 asked the Federal Communications Commission to step in to “stop excessive and unfair rights of way fees that are impeding wireless broadband deployment.”

The regulatory showdown will help determine how fast carriers can build networks to handle exploding data traffic.

“Small cells are at the core of 5G, and municipalities have the ability to make it happen or stop it,” wireless industry analyst Roger Entner, of Recon Analytics, told Bloomberg BNA.

Mobilitie wants the FCC to set ground rules governing how much cities and towns can charge wireless companies to deploy in public rights-of-way. It argues that cities should be able to charge fees for issuing permits and managing the rights-of-way, but no more. “Many localities are using their authority to manage rights-of-way as a pretext for raising revenue,” Mobilitie said in its FCC petition.

But municipal advocates say Mobilitie just wants the FCC to help it get around zoning regulations and compensation typically required for any company deploying equipment on or near roadways and sidewalks.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has teed up a vote on a rule proposal for the commission’s April 20 meeting.

High Stakes, High Costs

Small cells are critical infrastructure, essential to industry efforts to build 5G networks. They complement existing networks but help carriers meet growing data demand now, and help prepare for an explosion of “internet of things” devices predicted to come online in the next decade.

Small cells can be cheaper to set up than traditional towers, but the overall cost of multiple facilities in a dense geographic area can rise quickly.

Mobilitie CEO Gary Jabara told Bloomberg BNA that wireless service is an essential service, akin to power or water, though wireless isn’t “like a regulated utility,” he added. “With wireless as an essential service, the petition at the FCC is one that requests that the FCC assist the wireless industry in gaining access to the rights-of-way, which were established for essential services,” he said. It’s not granted to the cities “to be capitalists and make money from wireless companies wanting to install an essential service,” Jabara said.

In addition to its small cell deployments, Mobilitie also uses transport facility poles ranging from 70 to 120 feet to mount equipment that delivers wireless data from consumer devices to the core network and back. That’s sparking many of the complaints to the FCC from city officials, with some municipalities saying the company is deploying the structures without sufficient consideration for public safety or local input. Accommodating a small cell attachment to a new or existing pole in the right-of-way is one matter, but accommodating a new 120-foot pole is a “very different consideration,” the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said.

Jabara said the majority of its small cell construction involves attachments to existing infrastructure. Mobilitie, like most of the wireless industry, sees right-of-way deployments as faster and cheaper than other options. Accessing the right-of-way and building in the right-of-way “is 10 times faster and 10 times cheaper than doing anything on private property,” Jabara said.

Sprint’s Small Cell Gambit

Keeping small cell deployment costs down may help Sprint claw its way out of a tough financial situation. The Kansas-based carrier slashed capital expenditures in 2016 in a bid to increase cash flow. That move makes it vulnerable to subscriber losses if its network quality falls too far behind its competitors, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Mobilitie also keeps costs down for Sprint by connecting its cell sites using wireless, rather than more expensive fiber optic, connections.

With its focus on small cells, Sprint’s cash capital expenditures are expected to grow by 24 percent this year, to $2.7 billion as deployments increase, Bloomberg Intelligence said. Sprint has touted its vast spectrum holdings in the 2.5 gigahertz (GHz) band as ideal for small cells. Those factors present “a strategic advantage to Sprint by greatly expanding the potential structure and locations where we can deploy these smaller antennas,” Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said during a January earnings call.

But Sprint faces stiff competition. All of the national carriers are vying to lead in small cell deployment. Verizon recently claimed to have the largest small cell deployment in the U.S. It has already built more than 10,000 outdoor small cells, “and will more than double that number over the next two years,” the company said in a March 8 filing at the FCC.

The wireless industry is quick to point out that across the country, local zoning ordinances were written for large wireless towers, not for small cells. “In these cases, zoning applicants are required to meet a number of burdensome conditions, such as demonstrating that a proposed facility is needed to close a gap in coverage, holding community meetings, and obtaining special use permits, that are neither relevant to nor necessary for small cells,” Verizon said.

Network of the Future

Between 2016 and 2021, global mobile data traffic usage is forecast to increase sevenfold, of which approximately 78 percent will be video traffic by 2021, according to Cisco Systems Inc. estimates.

Hundreds of thousands of small cells are expected to be deployed across the U.S. by 2020 to support that growth, according to Kagan Research. The number of small cell sites could surpass traditional wireless towers by 2019, possibly numbering approximately 455,000 by 2020, assuming speedy siting procedures, Kagan Research’s John Fletcher said in a report.

Investment in deploying that 5G infrastructure could generate $500 billion and three million new jobs for the U.S. economy in the next seven years, according to a recent industry-commissioned study by consulting firm Accenture PLC.

Local governments recognize the benefits of better wireless connectivity. “A lot of areas in Georgia are not served, or are terrifically underserved,” Lamar Norton, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, told Bloomberg BNA. “To generate jobs and a new economy for our state, we need this technology,” said Norton, whose group represents most of Georgia’s municipalities.

Define ‘Small.’

Some of the tension reflected in the FCC’s proceeding stems from the difference in precisely what different companies mean when they talk about “small cells.” City officials across the country have blasted Mobilitie for trying to install large pieces of equipment near their roadways.

Papillion, Neb. city officials told the FCC that Mobilitie “gave no consideration to the historic nature” of the city’s downtown area when the company asked to deploy an 80-foot wooden tower between a downtown street curb and sidewalk.

In Midland, Mich., Mobilitie filed two applications to install 120-foot-tall towers in the rights-of-way on Midland County roads, a local county road administrator told the FCC. Mobilitie “made no prior attempt to contact anyone regarding local rules and regulations governing the use of the right-of-way,” never completed its applications with site-specific criteria, and provided “merely a dot imposed on a snapshot of a googlemap [sic]” by way of location information, Terry Palmer, managing director of Midland County Road Commission, told the FCC.

State and local governments are fighting back against a uniform regulatory approach. A ruling from the FCC limiting the types of fees municipalities can charge “could potentially cost local governments billions of dollars annually for the private use of the public rights-of-way,” a coalition of governmental regulatory and municipal organizations, including the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), told the FCC. It also risks interfering with ongoing collaboration between state and local governments and wireless companies on model ordinance and licensing agreements that let localities maintain control over infrastructure siting while also giving companies certainty on pricing and deployment timelines.

Growing Number of State Laws

Mobilitie and other wireless industry companies say they’re working with local authorities to educate communities on small cells. The industry is also lobbying at the state level or working with local government on model ordinances to streamline small cell deployment.

“For us, it’s absolutely crucial that we get this small cell deployment right, and we’re not able to do it for 5G unless we solve it together on the local level,” Verizon Wireless’s Joe Rigero said at the February meeting of California and Nevada regulators, according to audio obtained by Bloomberg BNA.

Nearly two dozen states already have or are working on legislation to speed up small cell deployment, including California, Florida, Hawaii, Ohio, New York and Virginia. In Georgia, local governments recently completed model right-of-way licensing agreements to work with Mobilitie, and plan to complete more with other providers.

The Georgia Municipal Association’s model agreement came out of local governments’ decision to find a workable solution with Mobilitie. “We want the technology. We don’t want the unsightly poles or proliferation of new poles inside our cities,” Lamar Norton, GMA’s executive director, told Bloomberg BNA.

“We need to work with them so that we win, our citizens win, they win. We want to have a good outcome so that the technology is in every city,” Norton said. “It’s a lot better than fighting at the legislature and attorney’s office to see if we can work this out like ladies and gentlemen,” he added.

Single Rule

However, a nationwide directive from the FCC preempting “regulatory barriers threatening ubiquitous availability of wireless connectivity and 5G,” particularly on allowable costs cities can charge, would be better, according to a filing by wireless trade group CTIA, whose members include all four national carriers as well as tower companies including American Tower Corp. and equipment manufacturers such as Qualcomm Inc.

The telecom industry specifically wants to avoid a proliferation of different, state-based model ordinances, Entner said. “If you’re a telecom carrier, you want to have one rule to fit them all so that your process is repeatable,” he added.

A single federal small cell policy is precisely what local governments don’t want. “We need to take into consideration aesthetic considerations but also building codes, public safety codes, blocking pedestrian traffic with ground equipment. Those are all really, really valid and important issues that local governments have to address,” Kenneth S. Fellman, a former mayor and partner at Kissinger & Fellman, P.C. in Denver, told Bloomberg BNA.

Court Battle Looms

The FCC may face legal challenges by local officials if it does decide to preempt local cost-recovery rules. Municipalities can charge fair and reasonable costs for public rights-of-way deployment, so long as it’s done in a competitively neutral and nondiscriminatory manner, Fellman said. But an FCC interpretation that localities may only recover permitting and other related costs may face constitutional challenges regarding just compensation for state property, Fellman said. “I think there are significant Tenth Amendment legal constraints on the commission’s ability to deal with that without direction from Congress,” he said.

Billions of dollars are potentially at stake, either for local coffers or company balance sheets. Congress is expected to introduce new legislation addressing broadband deployment sometime this year, either as standalone measures or wrapped into a broader infrastructure bill.

It’s unclear whether any of those measures might address small cell deployments specifically.

Until the FCC, Congress, or some other authority weighs in to dramatically speed up small cell deployments in a way that won’t be litigated, the wireless industry will continue to have to move at the varying speeds that a patchwork of state and local rules allow.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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