By Daniel Shaughnessy, Md7 Land Use
As the industry moves into the future with more creative, innovative, and technologically-advanced wireless infrastructure solutions, it is worth remembering a time when things were not so great. More than just technology has changed since the early days of wireless infrastructure deployment; the partnership between telecommunications companies and the communities they serve has also advanced. While issues may pop up every now and then, long gone are the days of reckless, hurried builds accompanied by fervent public outrage, cries of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and moratoriums against new towers. More and more, local governments and players in the industry are working closely together to expedite deployment timelines and allay concerns regarding the design, location, height, and the alleged negative effects of installing antennas in the community. But, as we reach the point where the implementation of DAS and small cells in the public right-of-way (ROW) has started to become a financially-viable and necessary solution for wireless infrastructure, the relationship between local governments and the industry is in jeopardy of eroding back to how it was in the tumultuous early days of wireless deployment.
Today, there are approximately 1.4 mobile-connected devices for every person in the U.S. – that is 447 million devices clogging up the bandwidth of our current wireless infrastructure. By 2018, U.S. mobile data use is projected to increase 6-fold. In order to have a fighting chance at meeting this looming demand, more carriers and wireless infrastructure companies are looking to deploy outdoor DAS and small cells in the public right-of-way in the most time sensitive manner possible. However, fearing the unknown, a local government can curtail and sometimes even completely derail ROW installations in an effort to minimize visual impacts and preserve community character. When the industry was faced with this same dilemma in the past, the solution was to bulldoze through the deployment process and worry about public opposition later. The community distrust, expanded regulation and even further increased timelines that resulted, took us 20 years to repair so that we could obtain the relationship between local governments and the wireless industry that exists today. This cannot be the solution we use today.
Instead, we need to highlight the common goals that both parties share and develop a solution that not only solidifies the local government/wireless industry partnership, but enables the two to work together to reach these goals. Local governments are nothing more than representatives of the community that wireless companies are looking to serve. Government efforts to minimize visual impacts and protect community character during the permitting process are rooted in the overall goal of increasing community desirability which leads to economic vitality. Customers expect nothing more than the best service from their wireless carriers. As such, when seeking to enhance wireless infrastructure, wireless companies are also representatives of the same community that local governments serve. When deciding between cities during the home buying process, U.S. adults often care more about mobile phone reception than the quality of neighborhood schools. Thus a carrier’s desire to timely deploy infrastructure in the public ROW will result in increased community desirability and economic vitality. Both parties are looking for the same goal. Good mobile service is part of a city’s basic infrastructure, and local governments need wireless companies to provide this service in order to enhance the overall desirability of the community. So, if mobile companies are attempting to provide a service that local governments clearly need, why is the industry running into difficulties with deployment in the right-of-way?
Simply having a product or service available is not all that is needed to complete a deal. Like any good retail sales outfit will tell you, the other half of the equation is customer service. In my experience working closely with local governments and the communities they serve, I have found that they are not turning away from the product, they are rejecting the poor level of customer service that they have received. Too often, local governments report that comprehensive ROW installations are disorganized, community involvement is avoided, communication is infrequent, and as-builts do not reflect what was originally approved. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. The wireless infrastructure industry is fueled by hasty time-to-market metrics in multiple cities, and it is not always easy to make things perfect. Additionally, apart from power and fiber backhaul, permitting costs and procedures are cited as the main constraints that can derail a DAS project. So I can see how viewing local governments as partners in ROW deployment may be hard for some to swallow. But, as we have seen in the past, by not working with a local government as a partner, bridges will burn, regulations will only increase, and the rate of ROW deployment will continue to grind along at an excruciating pace. A customer will be hesitant to return to a store where she received paltry service. A store owner would not want poor customer service to affect her reputation and limit her ability to gain more customers. These same principles apply to the carrier/local government partnership – customer service is a necessary component.
In order to successfully sell the timely deployment of multiple nodes in various ROW locations throughout a community, a customer service-driven engagement plan is needed. The bottom line requires carriers to bolster their network in order to increase customer satisfaction. A local government is nothing more than a conglomeration of these wireless customers. By establishing a customer service-driven engagement plan with local governments during the permitting process, wireless carriers are working towards the same bottom line – albeit in a slightly different order – increasing customer satisfaction in order to bolster the network. Just like any successful customer service plan, best practices for selling a comprehensive ROW installation to a local government should consist of the following three steps: (1) learn more about the particular customer’s needs to identify the problem; (2) identify a service or product that will satisfy these needs; and (3) distinguish yourself or your product from the competition by providing a high level of customer service.
In the first step, the carrier must do the due diligence necessary to identify a community’s particular needs and service issues. In general, local governments must first be educated about the growing dependence on wireless devices, smart phones, high data consumption, and home buying preferences using facts and figures from dependable non-biased sources. Next, the particular service issues in the city must be addressed. Of course, a wireless carrier will never commit to a ROW deployment based solely on what a local government thinks it needs. The ROW needs must first be carefully evaluated in the context of the carrier’s overall network. However, this does not mean that the carrier cannot coordinate its needs with the needs of the city. The carrier should take their proposed build-out plans and compare them with the community’s general or comprehensive plan. The majority of all jurisdictions in the U.S. have a publically available comprehensive plan, an overall master plan developed through citizen participation that sets forth the city’s future development goals. Among other things, the comprehensive plan will show congested neighborhoods and roads within the city, the city’s major growing industries, and the technology and infrastructure goals that the community wishes to achieve. To the extent that your build-out lines up with any of the goals, the comprehensive plan will do wonders to strengthen your proposal to the city, as it tells government officials that this is something their citizens want. Further, in conjunction with the city’s development code, the comprehensive plan will provide an understanding of the design constraints and allow the creation of correct plans at an early stage, saving on surprise costs in the back end. In addition to the particular needs of the city found in the comprehensive plan, care should be taken to research what particular events the community has held in the past and what they have planned for the future. For example, a city that holds a large amount of festivals, or that has a desire to host collegiate or professional level sports championships, will most certainly have the type of wireless congestion issues that small cells in the ROW are designed to solve. Above all, when identifying needs to the local government, make sure that they are specific to the particular community and not necessarily universal problems that all communities face.
Only once the community’s particular needs are brought to light, can the carrier or wireless infrastructure company then identify the proposed ROW build as a tailor-made solution. Now that the community’s needs are established, the proposal will no longer look like a unilateral benefit for the carrier’s network. Instead, the plan should be framed as a necessary public service that will address particular problems and modernize the community. At this point, partnership and teamwork should be highlighted. It is not simply the local government helping the carrier deploy its network, the carrier is helping the local government achieve its ultimate goal of becoming a more desirable community. In this light, both parties will be motivated to implement an expedited and efficient permitting process.
Ultimately though, the partnership between carrier and community will fail unless the carrier is able to distinguish its build plans by providing a high level of customer service from beginning to end. Community education, an organized team, and an established relationship are required. A large majority of jurisdictions allow wireless infrastructure in the public ROW without the requirement of a public hearing or some other type of community involvement. While this seems ideal from a carrier’s prospective, it can backfire when citizens feel they have no say in whether a DAS node should be installed right outside their front window. Whether or not it is required as part of the permitting process, the carrier should consider increasing the level of public education regarding the installation process and ROW builds in general by conducting community meetings and providing informational handouts. These interactions should not only focus on the benefits to the community, but should also address the considerably low visual impact that ROW installations provide in comparison to traditional macro builds. In addition to community involvement, customer service can increase with a clear and organized build-out plan and by providing an accurate development schedule to the local government. Each community build-out plan does not exist in a vacuum, and, although ideal, it may not be possible to assign a dedicated team to each jurisdiction. However, both internal and external communications regarding all stages of the project can be streamlined by assigning one point of contact to speak as the company’s representative to the local government. This dedicated government liaison does not necessarily need to be present in the jurisdiction, so long as she has the ability to communicate and coordinate operations with all members of the carrier’s team. Lastly, efforts should be made to ensure that the partnership with the local government does not end as soon as the installation is complete. Local governments should be encouraged to reach out to the government liaison to address any post-installation issues that may arise. If as-builts do not match approved plans, the liaison will work with the local government to take responsibility for botched installs and provide quick remedies.
At first blush, deploying wireless infrastructure in the ROW by way of a customer service- driven engagement plan with local governments may seem like it will only add additional time, resources, and costs. But, reverting back to the method of bulldozing through deployment in the fastest way possible is not a viable option as history tells us this will only lead to increased resistance from local governments. Instead of working against local governments, we need to further establish the trusted partnership that we have worked so hard to obtain.
As wireless data needs continue to grow exponentially, communities need innovative services like wireless in the right-of-way that will provide an effective solution while keeping a low visual and environmental impact. What better way is there to provide that service than with a smile?