Building our mobile life

As we use our smartphones and wireless devices in more and more ways each year, mobile broadband has become integral to our daily lives. The need for additional spectrum to keep up with our increasingly connected lives is well established. The infrastructure needed to support our mobile use needs to be modern and flexible too, but does not get the focus it warrants in policy debates. The good news is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in a position to take critical steps to facilitate smarter and faster deployments.

We will always need the large cell towers that you see along the highway. The wireless industry builds new ones every year to help meet demand and extend coverage, and existing towers must be updated to support the latest technologies. Increasingly, there are also small cells and other new infrastructure techniques that you may not even be aware of hanging off a lamp post or a wall that provides even more connectivity to enhance your experience. The amount of innovation in this space is remarkable. Distributed antennas systems (DAS), which are networks consisting of multiple antennas tuned to match the contours of buildings and spaces, and small cells — some small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and weighing ounces, like the Ericsson Dot — let carriers provide spot coverage in hard to serve areas or additional capacity in densely populated areas.

The challenge is that the regulatory process to build, install or update infrastructure can be extremely time consuming and costly, and small cells too often are treated like a 250-foot tower under local government rules. When faced with a request to install new or upgrade existing infrastructure, many municipal leaders react with indifference or outright resistance. All too often, local leaders spend many months deliberating over a proposal. In the worst cases, litigation ensues and years pass before a court issues a ruling. In some towns, local moratoria have ground investment to a halt. Even efforts to simply upgrade antennas on existing towers — collocations — face opposition and delay.

Reforming the wireless siting process is critical to facilitate and expedite future investment, thereby helping to meet the escalating demand for mobile broadband. In 2013, U.S. wireless providers handled more than 3.2 trillion megabytes of data, a 120 percent increase from 2012 alone. With the Internet of Things, wearables and the skyrocketing use of mobile video, the future growth trend lines are staggering. Deployment of new cell sites can also increase both network resiliency during severe storms and capacity to accommodate unanticipated traffic surges that may occur during large events.

A commonsense national approach to further streamline and modernize the wireless siting process is long overdue. Congress wisely recognized the need in 2012 for steps to accelerate wireless broadband deployment, and the FCC effort to consider reform has broad and bipartisan support. Action is needed as soon as possible to loosen the investment logjam in too many localities.

Specifically, by adopting four reforms to meaningfully expedite wireless infrastructure deployment, the FCC could eliminate key delays and unnecessary steps associated with wireless investment.

First, the FCC should limit the ability of state and local authorities to delay the collocation and replacement of wireless infrastructure that have minimal impact on communities.

Second, the FCC should permit the speedy deployment of temporary towers used to respond to local emergencies and newsworthy events and to assist local law enforcement.

Third, the FCC should curtail unnecessary delays at the local level by imposing a 45-day limit on collocation approvals. After all, as Congress recognized, these wireless facilities already have received the necessary zoning approval, so why impose further impediments?

Fourth, the small size and flexible placement of DAS and small cells warrant streamlining the environmental and historic review processes — including the adoption of certain exclusions — for deployment of these facilities.

Quick and decisive FCC action on infrastructure reform this fall can directly translate to shovel-ready jobs and capital outlays. And, for consumers, it means an even more robust and powerful mobile broadband experience.


Baker is president and CEO of CTIA — The Wireless Association.

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