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10 April 2019

Operators push for open access to city sites on both sides of the Atlantic

The cost and red tape associated with access to city sites are still slowing down the pace of densification, and the situation will hit crisis point when it comes to 5G’s requirements for smaller cells and dense urban capacity, argue operators like Sprint. In the UK, BT is calling for open access to infrastructure such as lamp posts, in order to lower the barriers to deployment.

It wants an end to the exclusive concessions model, which is commonly used by local authorities in the UK. They award the right to deploy small cells or WiFi on their lamp posts and other sites to a single entity. Other service providers then have to pay a wholesale charge to the concession holder.

But although BT holds some of these concessions itself, it is proposing an open model, which would allow equal access to lamp posts and other street furniture for the deployment of small cells.

It is even prepared to light the way by giving back its own concessions in nine areas, in return for open access rules being implemented nationwide. BT currently has agreements in place with local authorities in Glasgow, Cardiff, Brighton, Plymouth, Carlisle, Newcastle, Nottingham, Gloucester and Leicester.

“While the concessions model made sense in the early 2010s when it first came into common use, the market and regulatory landscape have changed and it’s become clear that exclusivity agreements act as a barrier to further 4G and 5G investments,” said Paul Ceely, director of network strategy at BT Group. “Government initiatives such as the DCMS Barrier Busting taskforce are showing the way, but we believe that industry needs to act. We are leading the way by handing back exclusivity in nine key areas.”

He added: “The UK needs an alternative approach which sees industry and local authorities working together to share these street sites in an open and collaborative way. This will create the right environment for long term investment and innovation in future mobile networks.”

However, local governments often guard their right to decide their own rules, and fees, for the use of their locations. The disputes have been particularly virulent in the USA, where all the four national MNOs are densifying their networks, and have all complained about the time and cost it takes to address site issues.

Recently, the FCC issued an order limiting cities’ ability to restrict the deployment of 5G small cells. But Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland, Oregon, spoke for many of his counterparts when he said: “The federal government has made something of a land grab against local infrastructure, like telephone poles, where these wireless nodes will be connected.”

The City of Portland went on to file legal action against the FCC to halt the wireless pre-emption order, which came into effect in January, having been passed into law in September 2018. And Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has announced the City of Seattle will coordinate with other cities in a lawsuit against the order.

“In coordination with the overwhelming majority of local jurisdictions that oppose this unprecedented federal intrusion by the FCC, we will be appealing this order, challenging the FCC’s authority and its misguided interpretations of federal law,” Durkan wrote.

Much of the opposition from cities has arisen because of what is perceived as an attempt to rob them of self-determination when it comes to leasing their assets. Cities want better mobile broadband, but they also want to be able to set their own terms, conditions and price for lamp posts, buildings and highway locations; plus they are often in contention with state governments, some of which have tried to force through new, common rules too. So the FCC’s proposals are being opposed by a large number of large and small cities, on the basis that their local autonomy is being overridden by a federal agency.

Last summer, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr announced the second set of guidelines which he has spearheaded in this area, following a success six months earlier, when he established the principle that small cells should not be treated in the same way as macrocells, and excluded small cells from many restrictions on historic building or environmental grounds.

Carr has argued that his later proposals create a balance between local priorities and federal 5G goals. One of the four key elements of the FCC proposals is that the new rules will not disturb existing small cell legislation at state level, but will just provide guidance on local reviews.

The other three elements are:

  • State governments can charge operators for the costs associated with reviewing small cell deployment, but the FCC’s rules will prohibit ‘ excessive fees’. Carr elaborated: “To encourage cooperation between local governments and wireless providers, the FCC in the order provides specific fee amounts, below which we presume the local governments’ fees are lawful.”
  • Local governments will need to conduct approval processes within 60 days for small cells being added to existing structures and 90 days when a provider wants to put up a new small cell site.
  • Local governments will be able to review small cell deployments via “reasonable” aesthetic reviews.

Cities fighting against the new rules include San Francisco – despite being a self-declared smart city; Philadelphia, scene of the municipal WiFi battles between operators and local authorities a decade ago; and Chicago; plus some smaller cities like Lakewood, California and Yuma, Arizona.

The filings by the cities generally follow the same format and present the same basic arguments, indicating a level of coordination of their efforts. The main arguments are:

  • The FCC’s proposed new collocation shot clock category is too extreme.
  • The FCC’s proposed definition of “effective prohibition” is too broad.
  • The FCC’s proposed recurring fee structure is an “unreasonable overreach that will harm local policy innovation” while not ensuring “fair and reasonable” compensation for the cities.

“While promoting broadband technology and development remains an essential City initiative, it is critically important for municipalities such as Philadelphia to balance these goals with the ability to regulate and manage the public ROW [right of way],” the city of Philadelphia wrote in its submission to the FCC’s consultation process. “The City’s ability to manage its ROW is essential in order to effectively protect the health, safety and welfare of the City’s over 1.5m residents and 43m annual visitors.”