Two bureaucrats tangling over the intricacies of wireless networks may not seem like the stuff of headlines but this week’s debate between two FCC commissioners could shape the future of how we use our smartphones for decades to come.
Mignon Clyburn and Michael O’Rielly sat awkwardly next to each other on stage at Mobile World Congress Americas, the wireless industry’s big new bash, in San Francisco this week. They were part of a panel discussion along with new Trump-appointed commissioner Brendan Carr, as well as Meredith Attwell Baker, who heads the CTIA wireless trade association that put on the show. The seating arrangement—Clyburn to the left and O’Rielly to the right—fit their roles as vocal proponents of the commission’s political wings.
Having battled over topics like net neutrality and cable boxes, they now groused about the FCC’s latest dull-but-important controversy: the placement of transmitters for the new 5G wireless networks arriving in two or three years. Installing up to 300,000 cellular antennas—double what the U.S. currently has—in so little time is leading to a clash between overwhelmed local zoning officials and impatient industry and Trump administration officials, with Clyburn and O’Rielly fighting for each side.
The single-digit upgrade from “4G” to “5G” belies the massive technological change it will bring and the havoc it may wreak. Not only will 5G be a lot faster, it will also be ubiquitous—ranging from instantaneous, high-bandwidth connections for drones and robo cars to trickles of data from billions of temperature and moisture sensors. That requires scrounging for additional electromagnetic spectrum—pinching some from TV broadcasters, for instance, and also harnessing crummy “millimeter-wave” frequencies that can transmit only a few feet and not always make it around corners. “Many of these bands, just a few years ago, was dog spectrum,” said Clyburn. Making it workable requires placing “small cell” transmitters all over urban landscapes—with a size and density more like Wi-Fi hotspots than big, far-reaching cell towers.
But the bureaucracy is the same, say wireless industry boosters, with as much paperwork and cost for approving a small cell on a lamppost as for raising a 30- or 60-foot pole. Industry execs like to quote the figure that it takes a year to approve a cell that can be installed in an hour. Permit fees run to thousands of dollars per cell, and cells often require permits not only from cities but from Native American tribal authorities—even for locations far from tribal lands. At another talk during the show, Sprint’s VP of government affairs, Charles McKee, said that the company spent $173,000, just in tribal review fees, to install 23 small cells in the parking around the Houston Astrodome. Tribal authorities come in under the National Historic Preservation Act, even for a parking lot.
Local governments are trying to squeeze wireless carriers, say critics, with concessions for permits such as requiring carriers to install all new streetlights where a small cell goes up, to build a free municipal Wi-Fi network, or to pay 5% of gross revenues earned in the city. Some cities require even these small cells to be installed on poles that masquerade as cacti or other trees.
“There are bad actors in the space, and that’s going to require additional action,” said O’Rielly. “We are going to need to preempt those localities that are trying to extract a bounty in terms of profit…from wireless providers and therefore consumers, or that has a process to delay the deployment of technologies.” In July, the city of Tampa, for instance, enacted a 120-day moratorium on siting new 5G cells—a delay that won’t be helped by hurricane rebuilding.
Cities and neighborhood groups feel differently. Even small towers can be ugly, as can crowding cells onto lampposts, buildings, or anything else that sticks out of the ground. Locals need to be involved in setting rules for 5G construction, said Clyburn. “If you leave them out or ignore them you will have problems, be they protests or other bottlenecks,” she said. The delays might not be deliberate. Cities are overwhelmed with the applications to approve all of these new cell sites, she said. “If they don’t have the wherewithal…to do this in a timely manner, then we have a problem,” said Cyburn.
She bristled when O’Rielly used the word “preemption”—federal or state laws that prevent local governments from having a say in these zoning issues. About a dozen states have already passed laws to speed up 5G equipment approvals. The biggest state, California, is wrapping up its own bill. Meanwhile, O’Riely looked apoplectic when Cyburn called for “an infrastructure consortium where you’d have the municipal associations and the league of cities and counties and [wireless companies] sitting at the table across from each other, talking about what the goals and expectations are and how best to execute it.”
“There is an actual race going against the rest of the world,” said O’Rielly, “and I’m not willing to wait to have conversations for year upon year upon year around this issue.”
It’s tempting to see the 5G zoning battle as one of local communities vs. corporate America. Wireless boosters, though, say they are standing up for poor communities. “The problem is if we don’t cut the cost, where is [5G] going to get deployed?” asked Karr. “Only in the most high-end, urban, affluent communities.”
Technology often seems to evolve in an apolitical vacuum. The transition from 3G to 4G cost a lot of money and changed the country’s technology landscape, but not the physical landscape in most cases. With 5G, the isolated fights that pop up over an individual cell tower site will multiply and merge into a national phenomenon, especially in urban areas where small cells wind up encrusted all over the landscape. Whether they get installed quickly or extra carefully some constituency will get angry. In fact, the same people may get angry whichever way it goes.