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FCC clarifies cell tower rules to speed up 5G deployment

The agency's rules will further limit the power of municipalities as carriers deploy 5G.

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The FCC has clarified rules to allow carriers to make changes to existing cellular infrastructure for 5G. 

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

The Federal Communications Commission voted Tuesday to clarify rules limiting local governments' say in upgrading existing wireless infrastructure to 5G. The Republican majority on the FCC said the rules will help speed up deployment of 5G infrastructure. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement that the regulations are necessary to avoid "unnecessary ambiguities and roadblocks in order to advance wireless broadband service for all Americans."

"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," Pai said.

The 3-2 vote was split along party lines, with the FCC's two Democrats, Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, dissenting. Rosenworcel and Starks said in their separate statements that they opposed the new rules, because the regulations would impose new regulatory burdens on cities and local governments at a time when they're struggling with the economic and social effects of the coronavirus and with protests over the killing of George Floyd. Rosenworcel and Starks were critical of the Republican majority for refusing to delay the vote as some municipalities had requested.

"[U]nderstandably mayors and governors across the country are ringing the alarm," Rosenworcel said. "They are wrestling with historic crises and struggling to find a new way forward in a period of profound civil unrest. They want to be heard by Washington. But today's decision demonstrates that at the Federal Communications Commission we're not listening."

The regulations clarify aspects of the 2012 Spectrum Act, which was passed to speed up the deployment of 5G by allowing telecom companies to make changes to existing cell towers to support 5G service. Specifically, the new rules  prevent municipalities from blocking or delaying changes, such as antenna replacements, to existing tower structures, so long as the underlying structure remains. 

The FCC is already in a legal fight with many cities over infrastructure control as the nation's largest wireless carriers race to deploy 5G. In 2018, the FCC limited fees cities can charge wireless carriers to put up new 5G infrastructure and established time limits for municipalities to approve small cell infrastructure. Several cities sued, and the issue is being reviewed in the Ninth Circuit. Many municipalities argue that the FCC's rules restrict them from negotiating effectively with wireless carriers. But the carriers and Republicans on the FCC argue that too many cities are using these approvals to slow down the deployment of 5G.

Wireless companies applauded the FCC's efforts Tuesday. 

"Achieving the full and timely potential of 5G in the United States requires good infrastructure policy," Will Johnson, Verizon's senior vice president of federal regulatory and legal affairs, said in a statement. "The common sense clarifications adopted today help ensure that providers quickly upgrade their existing facilities to 5G, hastening consumers' access to next-generation wireless services."

Rural broadband auction rules 

The FCC also voted Tuesday to adopt auction procedures for the upcoming auction to provide $16 billion in subsidies to broadband companies promising to deploy high-speed internet in rural parts of the country. The auction is scheduled to start Oct. 29. In exchange for the government subsidies dispersed monthly over the next 10 years, auction applicants will be required to offer voice and broadband services to unserved areas. 

The vote was again along party lines, with the two Democrats dissenting. Rosenworcel said the FCC shouldn't move forward with the auction until it has improved its maps so that it knows where broadband is and isn't. The FCC is working to improve the accuracy of its broadband maps, but Rosenworcel said it was "irresponsible" to move forward with the auction before the agency has fixed the problem and has accurate data. 

Pai, on the other hand, has said rural Americans shouldn't have to wait "longer than necessary to obtain the economic, educational and health care opportunities provided by high-speed broadband."