Access to mobile broadband is readily available, often by multiple providers, in urban and suburban parts of the country. Unfortunately, the most rural and hard-to-reach areas of the United States still lack access and are lagging behind urban centers. Many CCA members attempt to serve these rural parts of the country, making them prime candidates for building out networks in these underserved areas. But as they continue to work to expand services in these areas, carriers face substantial roadblocks in constructing towers through the siting process.
Wireless carriers desperately want to give consumers what they demand and need to participate in today’s digital world – access to advanced mobile broadband. This includes providing necessary coverage for emergency services, as well as the latest technologies and services. But there are often obstacles to overcome, including delays or other barriers when attempting to deploy, upgrade, maintain, or expand their networks. To bridge the “digital divide,” several policymakers have advanced laws or policies that take advantage of siting using federal lands and facilities. However, we must remove the layers of bureaucracy and avoidable delays that surround the federal siting process if we are going to make a difference.
Competitive mobile carriers looking to expand their networks over federal lands have endured a host of delays and impediments, including: lost or misplaced tower siting applications; lack of communication or contact from the federal agency; unreasonably long delays waiting for application approval or denial; rejected applications without explanation; locations rejected, only to be determined months (or even years) later as the most appropriate site; and redundant historical or environmental reviews causing delays and additional costs.
The FCC, Congress and the Administration should act to ensure a streamlined process. For example, CCA recommends implementing and enforcing shot clocks for applications with federal agencies to avoid unreasonable, lengthy delays to reach a decision. This means providing deadlines during the tower siting process, which will add transparency to the process and increase certainty for the carriers who desperately want to meet their consumers’ insatiable demands for mobile services.
Government agencies must streamline both the application process, and their communications with carriers and infrastructure providers. As a first step, Congress or the FCC should generate a database of federal lands and assets for easy access to information, and establish a point of contact for applicants. Policymakers also should require agencies to use a standard, master application, rather than asking carriers to submit several different applications based on the jurisdiction where it is located or the type of tower being constructed, each time they are interested in a new tower location.
Just as important as reform to infrastructure deployment, competitive carriers need access to sufficient Universal Service Fund (USF) support. Many smaller, rural and regional carriers depend on USF support not only for maintenance of their towers in high cost areas, but also to continue the important work of expanding their networks to reach unserved areas. Without adequate access to these funds, infrastructure builds may be hindered, and consumers in these areas risk not having access to the advanced wireless services their urban peers enjoy.
Economic growth follows mobile broadband deployment. Researchers have estimated that employing one person in the wireless industry leads to an additional six and a half jobs in the community. Rural parts of the country must gain access to advanced mobile services to keep up in today’s digital world. In fact, Congress dictates that consumers in underserved parts of the country must have access to the reasonably comparable services their urban counterparts enjoy. Universal service programs are critical to achieving this directive, and CCA is actively involved with this important issue to ensure competitive carriers have access to sufficient USF support.
To sum it up – we need a “can do” attitude from the entire ecosystem, especially the public sector, which is responsible for making decisions that could facilitate high-speed mobile broadband deployment. Policymakers at the federal, state and local levels should recognize the benefits of mobility, including: economic growth; advanced telehealth services; precision agriculture technologies; and, yes, social inclusion. Every responsible public servant should ask, “how can I be helpful and how do we provide better broadband services at lower capital costs for every consumer?”
Without the required physical infrastructure, there can be no mobile broadband service. Infrastructure policies must help achieve the end objective – providing all Americans with the ability to connect no matter where they live, work, or travel. With a commitment to improving the tower siting process, and continued support for mobile broadband in USF programs, we can bring mobile connectivity to everyone in the United States.