When it comes to 5G wireless communications, we all understand that infrastructure will be essential. That is because 5G requires much more densified networks. For example, the United States will need to install hundreds of thousands of small cells — an exponential increase in the number of antenna locations for our current networks.
At the FCC, we have taken many actions to streamline our rules and make it easier for the infrastructure industry to build, maintain and expand America’s wireless networks.
To make it easier to install wireless infrastructure like small cells, we set a reasonable deadline for cities to rule on siting applications. We also set reasonable limits on siting fees — limits that still allow localities to cover their costs.
We also clarified the Commission’s rules for when wireless infrastructure companies want to upgrade the equipment on existing structures, such as replacing antennas on a macro tower or adding antennas to a building. These clarifications will accelerate the build out of 5G infrastructure by avoiding misunderstandings and reducing the number of disputes between local governments and wireless infrastructure builders — disputes that lead to delays and lawsuits.
We also convened a panel of outside experts from industry, state and local government, and the non-profit community. We call it the Broadband Deployment Advisory Council. A key focus of the committee was easing access to utility poles, and one of its recommendations was what became the one-touch make-ready reform — making it much quicker and cheaper to enable new attachments to poles.
Many poles already have electric utility, telephone and cable lines attached. Instead of having multiple parties sequentially prepare poles for a new attacher, as was the practice, the process can be much quicker if a single construction crew does all the make-ready work at once. Hence the “one-touch-make-ready” policy. It is now much easier for broadband providers to attach fiber to utility poles. This not only speeds up network buildout, it also opens the door to new entrants who can increase broadband competition. In addition, by promoting fiber network buildout, we are supporting the expansion of wireless intermediate networks, too.
Some local governments challenged the one-touch-make-ready rules in court, but just last month, a federal court rejected these appeals and affirmed the Commission’s policy.
We have modernized rules to make it easier for carriers to transition from maintaining yesterday’s copper networks to building tomorrow’s fiber networks. Moreover, we scrapped utility-style broadband regulation inspired by rules from the 1930s.
These reforms have helped to spur record-breaking capital investments in infrastructure essential for 5G, including fiber-optic cables and small cells. For example, in the four years before I became FCC chairman, the number of cell sites in the United States increased by fewer than 7,000. However, in my three years in this role, the United States has gained over 87,000 cell sites, with over 46,000 added last year alone.
We not only want to promote the deployment of cutting-edge networks, we also want to make sure that they are available to all. We recognize that there will always be sparsely populated, difficult-to-serve areas where there is no good business case for private companies to deploy networks. For those areas, the FCC has started public-private partnerships in which we subsidize broadband providers to connect places where the economics do not work. Our newest and biggest initiative to close the digital divide in our hardest-to-serve communities is our upcoming, $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. This initiative will connect millions of unserved homes and businesses through a two-phase reverse auction that encourages deployment of the best-performing networks for the lowest cost possible.
On the surface, towers and infrastructure may not sound exciting. However, the reality is that the digital revolution is not just about inventors tinkering in their garage or dorm room. It is about work crews climbing towers to install antennas and build the networks of tomorrow.
Ajit Pai is the chairman of the FCC. Edited for length and style, this article was derived from remarks Pai made by video on Sept. 21 at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Tower Providers and Infrastructure Association.