T-Mobile US told officials at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) it wants to add tens of thousands of cell sites in the coming years, but barriers at the municipal level are blocking progress.
In a filing, T-Mobile revealed it currently has around 66,000 cell sites in its network including macro sites, small cells and distributed antenna system (DAS) nodes. The operator said approximately 6,000 of those are located in public right of way zones across 24 states, a figure it hopes to grow to more than 50,000 across the entire US over the next five years.
However, according to the operator a number of significant hurdles from local governments are hindering its plans.
T-Mobile said plans to densify its network with small cells are running up against local siting and zoning regulations which are “impeding” infrastructure deployments. For instance, the operator cites an “undergrounding” code in the city of Minneapolis which allows officials to include a requirement for base stations to be underground as a condition of permit approval. In other cities, like San Francisco, T-Mobile said permit applications for cell sites are subject to an “aesthetic” standard not used for other facilities.
The operator also reported local governments are hiking site fees both for one-time applications as well as recurring annual fees. In Cottleville, for example, T-Mobile said operators are now required to pay $6,000 per wireless antenna – a fee which was previously $6,000 per site.
“These fees are unreasonable and unrelated to actual cost recovery,” T-Mobile said in its FCC presentation materials.
In some cases T-Mobile said local governments fail to, or deliberately don’t, act on permit applications at all. The operator gave the example of Florida, where 26 jurisdictions placed moratoria on applications. Two have been in moratoria for more than a year, T-Mobile said.
T-Mobile’s complaints are part of a larger row between US operators and local governments as the former push to densify their networks ahead of 5G and the latter fight to maintain autonomy.
Operators including Verizon and AT&T, and industry association CTIA, have asked the FCC to step in and streamline the current “minefield” of requirements to facilitate the deployments necessary for 5G. At Mobile World Congress Americas, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure warned the US could lose its leadership position on 5G if officials don’t “get their act together” on siting reform.
The FCC obliged in April, opening an investigation into: “how state and local processes affect the speed and cost of infrastructure deployment, and asks for comment on improving state and local infrastructure reviews, such as zoning requests.”
However, municipal advocates pushed back, arguing federal intervention would be “ill-advised” and could actually create more delays as municipalities would have to take the time to learn and implement the new review processes.
The FCC is yet to take action to implement new nationwide rules: the issue is not on the agenda for a commission meeting taking place this week.