New FCC rules could lead to more broadband for more people

Infrastructure is a hot topic these days, and broadband is a key part of that discussion. There’s a good reason for that. Access to high-speed Internet service means access to jobs and opportunity. Whether in downtown Baltimore or rural parts of the Old Line State, consumers all want better, faster and cheaper broadband. At the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), we get it, and are focused on getting more broadband to more Americans.

Unfortunately, our country’s outdated infrastructure rules are threatening to stymie the United States’ progress in the deployment of next-generation broadband networks. That’s why, on Thursday, the FCC will vote on a plan to modernize those rules.

Right now, there is a global race to deploy the next-generation of wireless broadband, known as “5G.” This is not just about getting faster wireless speeds. 5G networks will help unleash a new wave of American innovation — from self-driving cars and remote surgery to smart cities and the industrial “Internet of Things.”

The networks of tomorrow will look very different from the networks of today. Those tall, 100-foot towers that many people associate with their wireless service will be supplemented by thousands of new small cell facilities, many of which will be no larger than a backpack. Indeed, small cells will account for about 80 percent of all wireless deployments going forward.

But there’s a problem. Our country’s broadband infrastructure rules are backward looking. They assume that every cell site is a large tower.

The numbers tell the story. Right now, it costs about $35,000 to deploy a small cell. But federal regulatory fees are a growing and unsustainable percentage of the costs. Just one set of fees, which relates to federal historic and environmental reviews, accounts for 29 percent of all deployment costs, or around $10,000 per cell site.

So what are we getting for all this red tape? In nearly every case (about 99.67 percent to be precise), these reviews haven’t led to any changes in planned deployments. Yet, last year alone, broadband providers spent $36 million complying with them. As the race for 5G heats up, those expenses will increase exponentially; in 2018 alone, without reform, those fees will grow to $241 million. These costs now threaten to prevent the United States from winning the race to 5G. Even worse, they may result in 5G deployments that are limited to a few wealthy or densely populated communities, which would only widen the digital divide.

At the FCC, we have a chance to make a difference. For years, we have been discussing ways to modernize our broadband infrastructure rules. Last month, I announced a concrete plan for doing just that — a plan that means more Americans will gain access to broadband and the opportunities it enables.

Here’s what the plan would do. First, it would modernize our rules by excluding small cells from the federal review procedures that were developed for large towers. This would not greenlight any particular deployment. Rather, broadband providers must still obtain state and local approvals to put up a cell site.

Second, we would maintain the federal historic and environmental review process for larger deployments — the towers we all know and recognize — while streamlining our approach. For instance, we will put the FCC on a shot clock, which will require the agency to process filings within a set period of time.

All told, these reforms could flip the business case for bringing broadband to thousands of communities. A recent Accenture study determined that excluding small cells from federal reviews would result in at least $1.56 billion in savings. That capital could be used to deploy 55,000 new cell sites. That’s billions of dollars for more broadband, and not one penny comes from new taxes or fees on consumers.

I have seen firsthand the difference this can make. Two weeks ago, I visited a rural broadband provider that serves the Shenandoah Valley, including western parts of Maryland. Updated infrastructure rules would allow this provider to build 13 new cell sites, which could mean the first broadband option for rural consumers and businesses. Last week, I visited a neighborhood in the heart of East Baltimore. I saw a new small cell deployment that is bringing high-speed mobile broadband — in many cases, the only Internet onramp for consumers — to the community.

With the right policies in place, we can see this story play out in communities across the country. Reforming our infrastructure rules will unleash new broadband deployments and online opportunity for more Americans. I look forward to casting my vote in favor of this plan.

Brendan Carr (Twitter: @BrendanCarrFCC) is a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C.

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