Minor Changes to Broadband Infrastructure Laws Can Have Huge Impacts

Last week, CompTIA submitted comments in two different FCC proceedings focused on reducing barriers to broadband infrastructure deployment. The first focused on wireless deployment, and particularly on finding ways to speed up the process for deploying small cells. The second focused on wireline infrastructure and how to improve the processes for getting access to utility poles and local rights-of-way. Our proposed changes should help increase broadband competition, improve speeds, lower customer costs, and help pave the way for the next generation of wireless networks.

The wireless industry is changing rapidly, and next generation network infrastructure will look very different than it has in the past. Small cells will be the key to these new wireless networks. Instead of just relying upon a handful of large wireless towers to serve a community, next generation networks will supplement those towers with small cells, which are small short-range antennas that can be attached to utility poles, street lights and buildings. Smalls cells can only transmit signals a few hundred feet, and so they must be deployed densely and in great numbers.

Unfortunately, in many cases to deploy small cells companies have to go through the same regulatory process as they would for building a large cell tower, a process that’s both unnecessary and unworkable when deploying hundreds of small cells in a single city. A few states have passed new small cell laws this year which expedite the approval process and make deployment easier in various other ways, but it’s only a start. While most of the necessary change will need to occur at the state and local levels, the FCC has an important role to play in facilitating small cell deployment too.

CompTIA supported two changes to the FCC’s rules on wireless deployment that would help improve and expedite the process for deploying small cells. First, we asked them to shorten the “shot clock” for state and local governments to review and act on small cell applications from 150 days to 60 days. Second, we asked them to impose a new “deemed granted” remedy should a state or local government fail to act within those 60 days. Essentially that means that applications will automatically be approved if the state or local government neither approves nor denies them within 60 days. Under the current rules, a wireless provider’s only remedy is to sue in court if their application is not acted upon. These changes would make the rules for small cell deployment identical to the FCC’s rules for collocation deployment, which is when a wireless provider wants to install new equipment on a pre-existing tower, and which we believe is a comparable process to deploying small cells. These two changes to the FCC’s rules would have an incredible impact on the ability to deploy small cells and help pave the way for the next generation of wireless networks.

The second set of comments we filed largely focused on expediting the pole attachment process for wireline broadband. When ISPs build their networks, they need to attach the wires to physical utility poles, often owned by either local utilities or incumbent ISPs. When an ISP deploys a network in a new market they may need to attach their wires to thousands of poles. When a new ISP wants to attach to a pole, a process called “make-ready” has to occur, where the incumbent attachers have to physically move their wires on the pole to make room for the new attacher. These new ISPs often represent competition to the incumbent attachers, and so the incumbents have incentive to delay the make-ready process as long as possible, and sometimes prefer to incur fines instead of actually doing the work.

To speed up the make-ready process, several cities (Nashville, Louisville, San Antonio) have implemented a process called “one-touch, make-ready” (OTMR), which would allow new attachers to hire utility-approved contractors to do the make-ready work instead of having to wait for incumbents. An OTMR approach can cut months off the pole attachment process. In our comments, we supported a federal OTMR rule because it would significantly shorten the make-ready timeline, reduce deployment costs, and prevent incumbents from stifling new competition. We also supported a federal rule that would limit make-ready fees charged by pole owners to actual costs incurred to, again, prevent incumbent pole owners from using their unique position to gouge their competition.

New rules for small cell deployment and a federal one-touch, make-ready rule are fairly minor changes to the rules for broadband infrastructure deployment, but they could both have a significant impact on improving our broadband networks. These changes will help improve broadband speeds, increase competition, reduce customer costs, and help usher in the next generation of wireless networks.

Matthew Starr is CompTIA’s director of public advocacy

Leave a Comment