Wheeler: We’ll be unsuccessful in dealing with NIMBYism if all we talk about is engineering

Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the FCC
Image: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says siting issues that will arise amid the required cell site growth for 5G networks can be overcome by explaining 5G benefits in real-world terms.

Speaking at the annual Competitive Carriers Association convention, Wheeler said that 5G will require 10x growth in cell sites, meaning hundreds of thousands of new antennas being installed. That will require working with siting authorities to make sure those antennas can be deployed quickly and relatively inexpensively.

“One thing we must do is to tell the story of what 5G is – and not just in terms of technology, but as deliverables that mean something to real people. We will be unsuccessful in dealing with NIMBYism and the recalcitrance of local authorities if all we talk about is engineering,” Wheeler said in prepared remarks. “We have to help leaders at the local level – and all levels for that matter – understand that 5G will make the Internet of Things real.”

Wheeler added that even talking about IoT is “too obtuse” and that the conversation should be framed in terms of smart-city energy grids, safer transportation networks and new opportunities to improve health care.

“Let’s paint the picture of how 5G will unleash immersive education and entertainment industries, and how 5G will unlock new ways for local employers to grow, whether it’s a small specialty shop or a large factory, creating new jobs and improving services for the community,” said Wheeler. “It is also necessary to explain that the nature of 5G technology doesn’t just mean more antenna sites, it also means that without such sites the benefits of 5G may be sharply diminished …There are just over 200,000 cell towers in the U.S., but there may be millions of small cell sites in the 5G future. If siting for a small cell takes as long and costs as much as siting for a cell tower, few communities will ever have the benefits of 5G.”

Wheeler added that it’s not reasonable for localities to view cell site deployment as a potential new revenue stream, or to “franchise” their siting to a third party.

To address the issues, Wheeler pointed out the Commission’s efforts to streamline historic preservation rules and tighten the ‘shot clock’ for siting application reviews.

“And there’s a bipartisan commitment to do more as warranted. Both my Republican colleagues, for instance, have recently agreed that where states or localities are imposing fees or not being ‘fair and reasonable’ for access to local rights of way, the FCC should preempt them,” said Wheeler. “We shouldn’t be afraid to use all of our authority under the Communications Act to address unreasonable local barriers.”

Wheeler’s comments come as the distributed antenna system (DNS) market continues to ramp up to meet demand for small cells, DAS and C-RAN installations while simultaneously working to gain approval from local governments and municipalities.

"With carriers trying to keep up with the ever-growing demand for wireless data, they are looking at the high traffic dense spots where this presents the biggest challenge. This is especially true as we inch closer to a 5G world," Wells Fargo analysts said in a research note earlier this year.

Wells Fargo said future small cell deployments will hinge on municipal approval, something which the analyst firm said companies like ExteNet and CCI have done well. But other unspecified new entrants are being disruptive in the market to the point where it could spark some "legal backlash."

For more:
- read Wheeler’s remarks (PDF)

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DNS market strong but new entrants could spark legal backlash, analyst says