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Models and misdirection: infrastructure reform remains crucial for 5G

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Policy reforms governing cell siting, access to rights-of-way and more are needed to simplify and speed up 5G deployment.

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By: Will Johnson

The race to 5G is on, and Verizon is intent on deploying the most advanced wireless networks in the world. A fundamental building block for the networks of tomorrow are small cells that will be deployed on light poles and other “street furniture” throughout cities. Gaining the ability to deploy small cells on a reasonable and timely basis is perhaps the biggest challenge facing providers. The longstanding approach to siting was designed to address the very different concerns of very large “macro” towers, and applying those time-consuming and expensive processes to hundreds or thousands of backpack-sized small cells distributed through a city just won’t work. As is well documented in the voluminous record of the FCC’s wireless infrastructure reform proceeding, it takes too long, costs too much, and gives outsized leverage to the localities that control the rights-of-way and have gatekeeping control to much of the infrastructure. The existing process impedes the roll out of services that customers want and imperils our country’s ability to remain in the lead internationally with the transition to 5G.

Thankfully, the FCC has recognized this challenge, and is well underway in considering much-needed reforms to encourage small cell deployment.  Likewise, many other jurisdictions – including approximately 20 states and some cities – have already acted and put in place measures that facilitate the deployment of wireless infrastructure.  These reform efforts are vital and must continue.

As reform efforts proceed, of course, Verizon and other providers have not had the luxury of waiting for a fully-reformed nationwide regime, and instead have been actively negotiating with cities around the country as they seek to deploy the small cells that they’ll need to roll out the next generation of wireless.  This is a matter of competitive necessity for a provider racing to be the first to 5G.  Unfortunately, some critics of reform have pointed to particular arrangements that Verizon or other providers have reached with certain localities – most recently, San Jose – and declared that there’s no problem or that reform efforts should slow down.  Some have gone so far as to declare that particular deals are a “model” that should be replicated around the country.  These suggestions are off base and would threaten both the speed and the ultimate reach of 5G deployment. 

While Verizon is pleased to have reached a path forward with San Jose and a few other cities, the process for getting there was not quick or easy – for Verizon or for the cities – and confirms that reform is still essential. The costs associated with some of these arrangements also are high, far exceeding the costs incurred by cities, and it would be a mistake to assume that they would be economical in many other locations. And it would also be a mistake to take such an arrangement – negotiated by a locality with significant leverage and particular unrelated needs and challenges – and treat it as a model nationwide. Indeed, these arrangements leverage private sector investment, not public dollars, and the practical reality is that capital budgets are limited, and expense budgets have to be managed. So higher costs to deploy in one city mean less network infrastructure deployment in others. Embracing the highest cost deals as models also would directly undercut the important national goal of ensuring quick deployment of 5G to as many Americans as possible.

We embrace the promise of 5G technology for our country’s future. As we work through the difficult infrastructure challenges to make 5G a reality, we will continue to work collaboratively and in good faith at all levels of government to promote reasonable processes that ensure timely and cost-effective deployment as widely as possible. Our wireless future depends on it.

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About the author(s): 

Will Johnson is Verizon’s Senior Vice President for Federal Regulatory and Legal Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @WorldWideWillJo.