May 24, 2017
While FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly expressed frustration at the pace of change at the Commission in during his tenure, he expressed optimism that under a new chairman the wireless industry will see some action on longstanding issues in his afternoon keynote address during the first day of the 2017 Wireless Infrastructure Show in Orlando, Florida.
“It’s been just over two years since my last visit with you all and sadly the overall picture of issues of importance hasn’t changed all that much,” O’Rielly said. “A few things have changed in this time: a new administration, a new chairman, and a refreshing new outlook on communications policy.”
O’Rielly expressed his unhappiness that the regulatory uncertainty has not been resolved surrounding “Twilight Towers,” which are towers built between 2001 and 2005 that did not go through the National Historic Preservation Act’s Section 106 review and cannot accept collocations. The issue affects about 4,300 twilight towers where close to 6,500 antenna collocations have been prohibited, according to O’Rielly.
However, there is hope. The Commission did formally seek comment last month on resolving the issue of twilight towers, which includes assurance that no enforcement action will be taken against legitimate twilight towers.
Another area where O’Rielly has experienced frustration is tower marking. While the FCC successfully eliminated regulatory burdens in tower marking in 2014, the FAA Extension, Safety and Security Act of 2016 mandates that all towers ranging between 50 to 200 feet meet painting and lighting requirements.
The law potentially affects 25,000 communications towers and another 25,000 broadcast towers. the bill would cost the industry $750 million every five to seven years. Increased costs for building towers will cause rural areas to miss out on future 5G and IoT deployments.
“While no one disputes the desire to protect human life for those aviators whizzing planes inches from the ground, carrying out the burden as written will be an extremely expensive undertaking due to the cost of the specialized labor that climbs these towers,” O’Rielly said.
The fix according to O’Rielly is pass a provision clarifying that communications towers are exempt.
Tower Crews and the Repack
O’Rielly acknowledged the high demand for tower crews that is being created by the relocation of 987 TV stations as part of the broadcast spectrum incentive auction repack, which is occurring on top of the buildout of AWS-3 and 600 MHz spectrum and general network densification. And he noted the concerns that the tower industry may miss the 39-month deadline repack.
“While some are rightfully concerned about the ability to meet the current deadlines, I think it is not irrational that we wait to see how the first stages go before jumping to any premature conclusions, O’Rielly said. “If it looks like we cannot meet the 39-month timeframe, at some point, we can reassess. In the meantime, I suggest that everyone should take a deep breath as we head down the repack path together.
O’Rielly said one of the siting issues he hears about the most is access to the public rights of way where the industry is experiencing excessive delays when filing siting applications, explicit moratoria and de facto moratoria.
“These are not acceptable responses to new small cell technologies that need to be deployed for the United States to maintain its position as the leader in wireless communications,” he said. “The Commission should clarify that such behavior is not consistent with the Communications Act, which clearly reads that state and local regulations may not ‘have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.’”
O’Rielly added that the “excessive” fees being charged for use of the rights of way are not “fair and reasonable” compensation. “There needs to be a declaration that fees similar to those imposed on macro towers are not appropriate or sustainable for small cell networks,” he said.
Tribal Review Process
Another sticking point for antenna siting is the dramatically increasing tribal approval fees, which have soared from an average of $439 per site in 2011 up to on average $6,754, according to one carrier, or a 1,500 percent increase. “This is not economically sustainable,” O’Rielly said. “Further, tribes are receiving the payments, but then never respond as to whether there is actual concern, causing endless delays.”