This is the second installment in a multi-part Industry Viewpoint series about the relationship between carriers and smart cities initiatives by Brian Proffit. Proffit recently joined Adtell as vice president of Smart Cities Infrastructure.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
I opened this series with a quote from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. My aim here was to illustrate the polar extremes — of amazing opportunity alongside myopic, short-term self-interest — that have been playing out on the battlefront that is the FCC, bringing the situation to the brink of war… with the telecom industry lobbyists and the various advocates and attorneys for local governments as the opposing generals.
As I explained in the last installment, the needs of telecommunications infrastructure companies and the cities in which they operate have never been more closely aligned. Yet there are still many bridges to build and barriers to remove before mutually beneficial solutions can be achieved.
Basic engineering will tell us that the carrying power of a bridge is not the average strength of the pillars, but the strength of the weakest pillar. In this second installment, I’ll give an overview of the pillars that must be placed to ensure stability and strength for the future spans, the solutions that may follow.
I’ll assume that many of my readers, enviably, are removed from the legislative goings-on inside the Washington Beltway. Instead, most of you are probably completely absorbed in the production side of the telecommunications day-to-day.
Like Dickens, I’ll try to assume the position of the omnipotent and neutral narrator, relying on my experience from 18 years in the telecommunications industry — mostly in the competitive carrier and fiber provider role, but also including several years in the public sector as an advocate to the carriers I served and, more recently, as a consultant and strategy advisor to cities large and small.
The proliferation of small cells, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and outdoor Wi-Fi facilities has brought with it many challenges, beginning with the questions of under what authority the deployment may fall.
From a regulatory perspective, the industry believes that DAS and small cells are nearly indistinguishable, and should be treated the same when it comes to licensing, permitting and siting standards. Their position is that since both are likely to involve telecommunication services or commercial mobile radio service (CMRS) regulated under Title II of the Federal Communications Act, and generally involve the use of licensed spectrum.
However, as is always the case, local governments have their own priorities. The cities’ role in approving the siting of wireless facilities within the public right of way (PROW) is to protect the interests of its citizens in matters of safety, use of public owned assets and buildings, and preserving the aesthetics of its streetscape and skyline.
In reviewing and approving the siting of wireless facilities within PROW, cities must also navigate competing interests of:
- Obtaining fair compensation for use of PROW and attachment to city facilities.
- Accommodating reasonable access to those entitled in accordance to state and federal law.
- Ensuring that all attachers have an equal footing and process for access.
To do this effectively, and if the inherent differences are ever to be resolved, cities need an industry open and willing to educate them. It is of course cheaper to lobby than learn, but the long game, not the shell game, is the path to success. To this end, the importance of honesty and transparency on the part of carriers cannot be overstated.
‘Aesthetics’ could be said to fall under the umbrella of ‘Authority,’ but I think it’s useful to treat it as an individual issue. While the bulk of what we think of as ‘Authority’ concerns location of placement, appearance of placement is certainly more important to the average citizen making use of the PROW.
The proliferation of antennas that we all desire (industry and consumer alike) could easily clutter the urban landscape if not managed carefully. And the absence of true neutral-host architecture at the stage only compounds the problem — if each carrier must erect their own pole to serve a given area, healthy competition may drive antenna installment to three, or even fourfold what it could otherwise be.
Of course, concealment comes at a cost. But the cost of uncontrolled expansion at this scale, I’m afraid, would be the transformation of our urban centers into dystopian antenna farms. Compromise is the only solution.
And, speaking of cost…
MNOs are looking for unified costs across a market, but costs vary from city to city, and individual jurisdictions have statutes in place regarding what they charge. The cities are of course concerned with fair and standardized compensation, with avoiding any appearance of favoritism among carriers. And many jurisdictions have various silos, administratively speaking: the streets department, who grants the right of way for installation; the city cable and broadband office (or equivalent), who will charge a franchise fee; and the electric utilities (whether independent or municipal owned) , who will charge for actual attachment to existing city poles; as well as permitting and engineering. In addition, many of the utilities are seeing demand for attachment as the means to replacement of aging poles or street lights.
To a carrier trying to deploy a small-cell installation, who can expect little potential revenue from an individual antenna, these costs add up quickly. Unless the installation is in a particularly high-value neighborhood, they may even be prohibitive.
The way around this, from the carrier side, comes down to basic economics: partner on installations when appropriate, and leverage scale where possible.
Fiber & WiFi
All the above having been said, interesting synergies do exist which have the potential to substantially lower costs to carriers.
Many cities are migrating to new, energy-efficient streetlamps. Smart lighting has embedded radio controllers. The migrations are saving some cities millions of dollars per year, resulting in very favorable returns on investment.
Verizon, recently acquired a company called Sensity, enabling them to design a lamp with their small-cell antenna integrated into the housing. Strategically if they use the street lights as a loss leader, they could happily have accepted the city’s money to deploy radios that they otherwise would have had to pay for.
And as more and more cities ramp up to make long-term capital investments in fiber and WiFi, both to serve as a backbone for “Smart City” infrastructure and to serve the public directly through WiFi, and as a means of attaining digital equity, similar opportunities are becoming more common. Carriers who are able and willing to integrate hardware the city actively wants or provide fiber in kinds for other services may find themselves able to place their own antennas or fiber at little additional cost.
Process & Timing
Protocols of permitting and siting as they currently exist are woefully unprepared for the impending proliferation of small-cell antenna infrastructure. Present municipal due diligence was devised for macro installations; it’s equipped to handle only a certain volume of requests, and it moves slowly.
This is a massive frustration to carriers, who understand the new technologies and know that to treat each antenna as a discrete installation is, frankly, administrative overkill. But that’s just the point: the path to a less burdensome process is to educate the cities, to allow them to understand and adjust to the new technologies. This, unfortunately, will also take time.
I urge carriers to be mindful of the evolving nature of siting and permitting, and to work with, not in opposition to, their municipal counterparts. Create realistic expectations, play by their rules, and help educate them.
Which brings us to our final pillar:
Trust & Communication
For the telecommunications ecosystem to truly flourish in the 21st century, to the benefit of carriers and citizens alike, trust and communication between industry and government is absolutely essential.
Cities must adapt their processes and expectations to a fundamentally different technology, and to the rapid build-out of that technology.
And carriers, for their part, should recognize that government has a duty to protect the public interest, and that the fastest way to achieve their goals is to educate the cities — to help them understand that the proliferation of small-cell infrastructure is, in fact, very much in the public’s interest.
Proactively communicating the true scale and density of a project also helps cities to incorporate carriers efforts into strategic planning.
Typically, a highway bridge will last about 50 years, but in England there are iconic bridges approaching 250 years old. In France, there are remnants of aqueducts that are nearly 2,000 years old. If engineered and built properly, and with the right maintenance, a bridge can last a very long time.
Some on the carrier side have recognized this and taken steps toward great progress in erecting and securing these pillars. Others, in their short-sighted frustration, have left an unfortunate trail of scorched earth and damaged relationships, leading to the present divide between cities and carriers.
The way forward for carriers, who are frustrated by an often ignorant and slow-moving bureaucracy, is to temper that frustration and play the long game. It is open communication, not deception. It is not to beat their drums louder, but to find a way to beat their drums in sync with the cities’. The synergies are there. Industry and government alike just have to look out for them.
In the remainder of this series, I will discuss the spans that we must complete to pave the road to the digital infrastructure that will shape our lives in the 21st century. Thank you for sticking with me thus far, and my hope is that you will continue to accompany me on this journey.