The Wireless Innovation Act of 2015--a winning idea for installers, carriers and consumers

Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the Wireless Innovation Act of 2015, which unfortunately didn't receive much attention. I say this because tower proponents believe the bill could be a win for tower companies and installers because it makes tower deployment less costly and easier to build. 

The bill has two primary provisions: First, it eliminates bureaucratic barriers, making it easier for wireless carriers to deploy towers on federal lands. And second, it frees 200 MHz of spectrum for auction and for shared use.

I spoke with Jonathan Adelstein, the CEO of PCIA – The Wireless Infrastructure Association, about the bill. He said that the bill would streamline the process of deploying towers on federal lands. Currently, the process of getting approvals for deployments is overly bureaucratic and complex, he said, adding that deploying a cell site in some cases takes 5-10 years and is much slower than the process to deploy towers on private lands.

Renegotiating a tower lease on federal property can take months, but under the new process it would be quick and simple, with standard forms and fees. Also, there would be an ombudsman in each agency, allowing for escalation in the case of problems or issues.

Adelstein also said that the bill would direct the General Services Administration to develop a standardized fee schedule, providing a national fee, with no need for negotiation. Agencies that sign tower deals with carriers would be able to keep the proceeds, thus providing agencies with an incentive to work with carriers in a timely manner. 

Adelstein also noted that some of the worst wireless coverage is on federal lands and that the bill would help turn this situation around by providing better coverage for federal employees, including members of the military.

The other provision of the bill is that it directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to free 200 MHz of spectrum by moving federal usage to other bands or by making federal agencies use spectrum more efficiently, such as converting analog systems to digital.

Some 140 MHz of the 200 MHz would be used by private carriers following an auction, while 20 MHz would be allocated for unlicensed usage, just as 2.4 GHz spectrum is unlicensed and is used for Wi-Fi. Another 40 MHz would be allocated for shared usage involving government and private sector users.

The next step for the bill is to have a hearing before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications Technology, Innovation and the Internet. Sources have indicated that the bill is under consideration for such a hearing. This would provide a venue for Senator Rubio and his co-sponsors to tout the bill's benefits. That said, no hearing has yet been scheduled and the bill does not yet have any co-sponsors from the Democratic side of the aisle, so it is too early to say whether the bill will become law.

A hearing would also provide a venue for any opposition to the bill. It's unlikely that many will oppose a bill that streamlines the approval process and promises better wireless coverage, but then again, I doubt anyone wants to see a tower standing next to Old Faithful. Also, some might question the impact these changes might have on federal agencies currently using the 200 MHz of spectrum that would be cleared.

I believe tower companies and installers would win from passing this bill, as there would be significantly more work to do. The federal government would benefit from both auction dollars and revenues from additional tower deployments. Finally, the consumers would benefit from improved coverage, with federal and military wireless users probably benefiting the most. In short, this bill is a win for installers, consumers and the federal government. --Jeff