Regulatory Challenges with Small Cells

By Sean Maddox and Daniel Shaughnessy, Md7 for Land Use

Mobile operators are facing a precarious landscape. They must provide increased bandwidth to supply anytime/anywhere video and data access and this can only be achieved through significantly densifying their networks. One of the best means to achieve densification is through the introduction of small cells deployed on light poles and other similar structures in dense urban areas. This rapidly evolving technology is new to most municipalities and communities who face their own challenges with the need to develop code while processing an abundance of small cell deployment requests.

The Land Use team at Md7 has engaged in wireless deployments across the United States, both traditional macro as well as small cells. From this experience, we have seen firsthand the differences in the approval processes and development requirements from one municipality to another. Some municipalities have specific, well written guidelines which define small cells, approval timelines, and preferred site locations. Others are altogether silent on small cells and may not even be familiar with the concept, which is no surprise given the new technology and the difficulties in updating municipal codes.

Just as the written code and guidelines can be very different from one municipality to the next, so too can the actual approval times. On the very same project, we have seen “City A” approve a deployment after a 30-minute meeting and submission of plans and photo-simulations, while “City B” takes 9 months, multiple meetings with City Planners, and multiple public meetings. Because of this disparity in how small cells are handled across municipalities, some states are considering new laws to help clarify the approval process, expedite responsible deployments, and provide a level of predictability that will allow industry-movers to accurately forecast and plan deployments costs.

One such law, AB 2788, was recently introduced in California and then was subsequently pulled due to opposition. The supporters of this particular bill noted in an AB 2788 Coalition Letter of Support, that the stated purpose of this legislation is to accelerate the deployment of small cells in response to the demand for wireless broadband. Significantly more infrastructure is needed to keep up with the forecasted increases in mobile data and small cell technology is a key component to delivering the next generation of wireless technology to mobile consumers.

However, it appears that this specific bill was causing heartburn with some municipal planners and citizens and thus it was pulled. Md7 has been in communication with a number of municipal planners that we interact with on a regular basis who expressed concerns about AB 2788. Specifically, they were concerned that the legislation did not address small cell aesthetics, noise, back up power, and the interplay of a bill like AB 2788 with Section 6409.

While acknowledging those concerns, we believe that streamlining the process to deploy small cell technology is a necessary step, as the current regulatory environment is not working across the country. Small cell technology promises a great benefit to all parties, given that public safety is enhanced, consumer demand is met, and new macro site builds become less necessary in urban landscapes. As such, our initial reaction to AB 2788 was that we hoped municipal concerns could be addressed as the legislation moved forward.

Md7 works to get “sites on air – faster”. We are pro-deployment and foresee small cell roll-outs as a large part of our business over the next few years. In that effort, our land use team works with municipal planners and law firms that represent them across the country every day. With that in mind, we are very encouraged by the conversations within our industry around the rapidly developing need for guidelines to deploy small cells. We have seen first hand the need for mobile operators and municipalities to work together to facilitate the inevitable densification of our wireless networks, particularly in dense urban and residential communities.

Md7 remains optimisitic that a win/win solution will result – a win for wireless operators’ consumers as well as a win for the tax payers that the community planners represent, because they are one and the same.

June 23, 2016
MD7 Bio