The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted today to curb how much local governments can charge cell carriers to install the network equipment needed for the next generation of cell service.
The ruling comes after a series of standoffs between wireless companies and various U.S. cities over the fees associated with the review process for network construction.
The disputes have arisen as each of the four biggest wireless carriers race to build so-called small cells—more granular subdivisions of service areas that rely on numerous compact antennas placed on buildings, streetlights and other existing structures rather than one big tower.
Small cells have the advantage of being able to transmit data through the high-frequency waves carriers are planning to use for much of their 5G service, which is expected to boost network speeds exponentially. Those waves can transmit more data at faster speeds than the average cell signal and support more use capacity, but they can’t travel very far nor pass through any manner of obstacles.
Wireless companies are thus installing much more equipment in more conspicuous places than ever before, which has raised local concerns around everything from radiation risk to cityscape aesthetics. Until now, the length of the review process and the fees associated with it could also vary greatly from one municipality to another.
The new FCC rules restrict local governments from taking more than 60 to 90 days to review applications and put more restrictions on the fees they can charge, including a cap equal to a “reasonable approximation” of the costs involved in the process.
The motion passed with unanimous support from the four commissioners, despite a partial dissent from the lone Democrat, Jessica Rosenworcel, who criticized the rules for undercutting state and local power.
“In the global race to 5G, the stakes are high—it is about economic leadership for the next decade,” Commissioner Brendan Carr said. “The smart infrastructure policies we adopt today strengthen America’s role as a tech and economic leader, while ensuring that every community benefits from 5G.”
Dozens of cities of all sizes filed complaints opposing the action in the weeks leading up to today’s meeting.
“We oppose this effort to restrict local authority, stymie local innovation and subsidize small cell broadband providers while limiting the obligations providers have to our community,” Lincoln, Neb. mayor Chris Beutler wrote in one such filing.
Lincoln is one of several cities where AT&T and Verizon have halted construction of small cells over what they claim are exorbitant fees. Meanwhile, the industry has deployed lobbyists to push measures like the FCC’s ruling at local, state and federal levels. Twenty states have already passed some form of legislation that places similar restrictions on local review processes for small cells.
Carr cited America’s place in the global arms race to 5G as a rationale for this week’s ruling. Various reports show that the United States is lagging behind China and South Korea in overall 5G deployment, but President Donald Trump’s administration has indicated that catching up is a priority. Telecom lobbyists have often seized on this national interest to push favorable policy, including approval of a proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile.