5G Rollout Gets Streamlined With FCC Upgrade Order

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In a contentious vote today, the FCC approved the so-called “5G Upgrade Order,” the agency’s latest initiative, headed by Commissioner Brendan Carr, to accelerate wireless infrastructure builds. 

The order:

  • Sets a clear demarcation as to when the 60-day shot clock for local approval begins
  • Clarifies which new equipment qualifies for streamlined approval
  • Ensures local governments cannot misuse concealment and aesthetic conditions to limit the ability to quickly upgrade concealed infrastructure
  • Asks for public comment on what activity related to a modification can occur outside of a wireless site
  • Accelerates wireless network builds by clarifying rules for upgrading equipment on existing infrastructure

Co-location is “the process of putting new equipment on old towers. It’s less intensive and requires less regulatory review than new tower construction,” explained Carr during the vote. Clarifying the Section 6409 rules benefits communities “by reducing the potential for redundant towers, creating less costly and disruptive infrastructure,” he said.   

But the 3-2 vote was combative. Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks castigated the Commission for not giving localities more time to comment, considering local government budgets are stretched by the pandemic and protests. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the petitions from WIA and CTIA that promoted the change were filed in 2019, and the comment period was extended to November, “well before the pandemic,” he emphasized. 

The Order continues a multi-year effort by Congress, WIA, CTIA and the FCC to eliminate tower upgrade delays. In 2012, Congress required local governments to approve wireless infrastructure modifications that don’t substantially change the size of the towers or base stations. These upgrades—such as swapping out old antennas for new ones—were crucial to enhancing wireless capacity and improving service. In 2014, the FCC wrote rules to implement the law. 

But some of the rules created disagreements between parties. Indeed, many members of Congress and localities, including the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties, asked the agency to delay the vote. 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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