In the world of the internet, the goal is always, faster. Now that nine out of ten Americans have access to 4G LTE networks, telecommunications companies and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are already looking ahead towards the deployment of 5G technology. These efforts received a boost on Wednesday, when FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr announced a new plan to streamline federal environmental and historic review procedures in order to promote wireless infrastructure deployment.

Speaking before an event focusing on 5G hosted by the Consumer Technology Association, Carr announced that the FCC planned to vote at its upcoming March 22 meeting to exclude small wireless facilities from onerous environmental and historic review requirements. He explained that these regulations were intended for a different form of infrastructure construction, one with a much larger environmental impact than the relatively small 5G deployments.

“Our infrastructure rules were written for the hundred-foot 3G and 4G towers, not backpack-sized 5G deployments,” said Carr. “It’s the regulatory equivalent of requiring a commercial pilot’s license to fly a paper airplane.”

The present environmental and historic review processes drastically increase the costs for deploying 5G technology, said Carr, who explained how one company saw its compliance costs increase by more than 2,500 percent over the past seven years.

“It simply no longer makes sense from either a legal or policy perspective to treat these small-scale
deployments the same as large macrocell towers, which have a very different footprint and impact,” he explained. “So if the antenna associated with a deployment fits within 3 cubic feet, it is a small facility and can proceed without the need for federal [National Environmental Policy Act] or [National Historic Preservation Act] review.”

These changes could easily cost telecommunications companies tens of millions of dollars a year in permitting costs alone. The changes will also reform how tribal communities can impact 5G installation. Significant changes include the elimination of upfront fees for small deployments under the Section 106 tribal review process and clarifying the approach to tribal consultations, including what happens if a tribe fails to respond.

The goal of the regulatory changes is to free up money currently spent on permitting costs, allowing it to instead be used for infrastructure installation. Earlier this year, Sprint complained publicly about the high costs of tribal review fees, saying that it paid an average of $8,251 in such fees for every small cell it deployed. Given the scope of its installation plans, the company warned the FCC that tribal review costs could exceed $82 million without regulatory reform. In many instances, the devices are not only small, but are found to have no impact on historic sites.

According to the FCC’s estimates, the regulatory changes to environmental and historic review could reduce the regulatory costs of deployment by 80 percent and cut the time needed to deploy in half. All of these changes are expected to have a positive effect on America’s position as a global leader in 5G innovation.

Companies are likely to respond favorably to the announcement, say industry experts.

“While much remains to be done at the state and local level, the federal government needs to lead by removing blockades that have long deterred the rollout of vital next generation networks and the unleashing of another technological revolution,” says Roslyn Layton, visiting scholar in telecommunications and internet regulation at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Private sector actors want to collaborate with government at all levels as well as with tribal entities to secure and maximize investment in mobile wireless networks. 5G represents the ultimate opportunity for a public-private partnership in which everyone can win,” she continued.

That sort of partnership between industry and government is what the FCC hopes will help to keep America on a technologically innovative path. In concluding his remarks, Carr stressed that investment in 5G technology will spur innovation and growth in a wide range of industries which all serve to benefit from increased connectivity.

“5G is about more than just faster broadband and lower latency. It is about enabling the next-generation of innovation and entrepreneurship in America,” he said.

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