The most interesting thing on the exhibit floor at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Los Angeles might have been the dullest. Because it was so dull.
Samsung introduced a 28 GHz 5G small cell unit that packs antennas and electronics into a small, anonymous box that can be strapped to, say, a streetlight pole. According to a Samsung rep at the show, Verizon has already signed up to buy it.
As small cell facilities go, the box is tiny – two-thirds of a cubic foot, or about the size and shape of a toolbox. Something like half the volume is taken up by cooling fins, which are shrouded from view on three sides. The cellular antennas and radio gear are packed into the remaining space, with only a silver dollar sized GPS antenna poking out of the top. Samsung’s reps said installing it is as easy as bolting it to a pole and plugging in electric and fiber optic cables.
Keep in mind, though, what it is and what it isn’t.
It is a high bandwidth, millimeter wave cell site that meets 5G specs in a small package (Samsung claims it can deliver broadband at 10 gigabits per second). Presuming it works as advertised, it’s a solution for a particular set of circumstances.
It isn’t a revolution in small cell engineering or solution that’ll work in all, or even most, circumstances. The frequency band it’s designed for – 28 MHz – is just one of many that mobile carriers use. Most are lower frequency bands that require bigger antennas – millimeter waves use millimeter antennas, which makes it easier to cram everything into one box. Different bands and applications can also have different power requirements. A small cell site designed for another band will probably look different. Particularly if it’s intended to serve 4G as well as 5G customers, which this Samsung unit isn’t.
Even so, Samsung’s fully integrated small cell unit is an important benchmark for the industry. Making small cells smaller and duller will go a long way toward overcoming aesthetic objections and meeting mechanical design standards. The more small cells look like the photo above, and the less they look like the photo below, the easier everyone’s job will be.
The good news is that the appeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s preemption of local ownership of streetlight poles will be fast tracked. The not so good news – which isn’t exactly news to people who follow such things – is that fast is a relative term.
An order issued yesterday by the ninth circuit federal appellate court in San Francisco granted a request “to expedite oral argument” in the case, made by dozens of local governments. What that means is that the court is looking at “dates for February 2020 and the two subsequent…months” for those arguments to happen.
The judges hearing the case will also have to decide whether to handle everything at once, or break it up into more manageable bits. The primary case involves two decisions made by the FCC last year, both dealing with the way state and local governments manage access to roads and anything else considered to be the public right of way, and the degree of ownership control they can exercise over structures, such as light poles or traffic signals, they install there. One decision dealt mostly with deployment of wireline telecoms infrastructure, the other with wireless facilities.
One issue that’s particular to municipal electric utilities – whether federal law allows the FCC to regulate their utility poles – was separated out earlier. The cities and counties litigating the main case asked for arguments for and against one touch make ready rules for privately-owned utilities to be heard separately. Yesterday’s order said the three judge panel will sort that out later.
Assuming that oral arguments happen sometime between February and April, and the judges issue a decision in a three to six month time frame (typical, but it could be longer or shorter), then we won’t know if the FCC’s decisions will stand until this time next year. That’ll add to the uncertainty faced by cities as they try to manage the expected avalanche of permit applications for small cell facilities and associated fiber optic installations.
In a motion filed last month, they told judges that on the one hand, disputes are piling up, and on the other, the FCC is aggressively pushing ahead…
First, there are several other cases progressing through the lower courts that will be affected by the outcome of this appeal…Delay in resolution will simply complicate the work of district courts and Circuit Courts of Appeal throughout the country, as more applications are filed and more disputes arise.
Second, this appeal is a matter of great importance to virtually every locality in the nation. While this appeal is pending, Local Government Petitioners and Supporting Intervenors and similarly situated parties are confronted with uncertainty as to how to develop and apply local standards for small cell deployment, which is rapidly occurring…
Third, the Commission is not waiting for this Court to decide the validity of the Orders challenged on appeal. In fact, the Commission is currently building on those Orders, which makes possibly unwinding them all the more difficult.
That’s a line of argument that might apply equally well to the FCC’s preemption orders, which also set tight deadlines for action on permit applications filed with local government by telecoms companies.
Last year, the FCC issued two far reaching decisions preempting nearly all state and local authority over construction of broadband infrastructure, one dealing with small cell sites and the other dealing primarily with wireline projects. It claimed the authority to do so based on an expansive interpretation of federal communications law that boiled down to we’re in charge of national broadband policy, so what we say goes for everyone.
“No dice”, said the D.C. appeals court. Its opinion made two particular points: 1. congress never gave the FCC the necessary authority to occupy policy territory that legally belongs to states, and 2. if the FCC wants to exercise the authority it does have, it has to do so case by case, by the evidence…
Not only is the Commission lacking in its own statutory authority to preempt, but its effort to kick the States out of intrastate broadband regulation also overlooks the Communications Act’s vision of dual federal-state authority and cooperation in this area specifically. Even the 2018 Order itself acknowledges the States’ central role in “policing such matters as fraud, taxation, and general commercial dealings…remedying violations of a wide variety of general state laws,” and “enforcing fair business practices” — categories to which broadband regulation is inextricably connected…
We have long recognized that “whether a state regulation unavoidably conflicts with national interests is an issue incapable of resolution in the abstract,” let alone in gross…
Because a conflict-preemption analysis “involves fact-intensive inquiries,” it “mandates deferral of review until an actual preemption of a specific state regulation occurs.” Without the facts of any alleged conflict before us, we cannot begin to make a conflict-preemption assessment in this case, let alone a categorical determination that any and all forms of state regulation of intrastate broadband would inevitably conflict with the 2018 Order.
The ninth circuit federal appellate court in San Francisco is hearing the challenges to the FCC’s blanket preemption of local and state authority over right of ways and public property. It’s not obligated to follow the D.C. circuit’s opinion, but given that it has a history of being even more skeptical of federal agency supremacy than its Washington colleagues, it’s heavy odds that it will.
The Federal Communications Commission’s republican majority is now 0 for 2 in federal appeals court challenges to its weed whacker campaign to prune back telecommunications and media regulations. In an opinion released yesterday, the third circuit federal appeals court, based in Philadelphia, voted 2 to 1 to overturn an FCC ruling that loosened restrictions on media ownership, because republican commissioners blew off concerns about the effect it would have on women and minorities. In August, Washington, D.C.-based federal appellate judges overturned an FCC decision that scrapped environmental reviews for small cell site, saying it was “not logical and rational”.
The Philadelphia judges were likewise scathing in their criticism of the process, or lack thereof, that the FCC used in reaching its decision. It’s the second time in two months that federal appellate judges have rejected a controversial, party line FCC ruling because the republican majority did not do its homework…
Problems abound with the FCC’s analysis. Most glaring is that, although we instructed it to consider the effect of any rule changes on female as well as minority ownership, the Commission cited no evidence whatsoever regarding gender diversity…
Even just focusing on the evidence with regard to ownership by racial minorities, however, the FCC’s analysis is so insubstantial that it would receive a failing grade in any introductory statistics class.
The case has to do with how many TV stations a single company can own, and whether a company can own a TV station and a newspaper in the same media market. It’s not an issue I follow closely, so if you want more background on it, take a look at this story on CNET by Marguerite Reardon.
The court’s opinion has broader significance, because it shows an increasing lack of deference to the FCC’s supposed policy expertise and decreasing tolerance for sloppy decision making that begins with an idealogical conclusion and then supports it with sophomoric legal arguments rather than basing it on the evidence in the record. Appellate court challenges to two more FCC rulings – one rolling back Obama-era network neutrality rules and the other preempting local ownership of street light poles and similar infrastructure in the public right of way – are based on similar grounds. A ruling on the net neutrality case could come at any time. The appeals of the right of way decisions still have several months, at least, to run.
The local governments shot down the FCC’s claim that mobile carriers will build more infrastructure if pole rental fees are lower isn’t based on independent evidence or company track records…
The Commission tries to fill the gap with industry’s self-interested assertions that they will increase small cell investment in response to lower fees. But the record shows that providers have not increased deployment when offered lower fees. The Commission relies on AT&T’s assertion that it has not deployed any small cells in Portland, Oregon, due to the current fee levels. Yet when Portland conducted a pilot project, lasting more than three years, that set lower annual rights-of-way fees, AT&T did not submit a single small cell application.
And, they said, the FCC falsely accuses cities of monopolising access to streets, while ignoring the real monopolists…
The Commission’s claim that local fees reflect “monopoly pricing” ignores record evidence that, unlike the case with wireline facilities, private property alternatives to rights-of-way and rights-of-way infrastructure exist for locating wireless facilities. It also overlooks this Court’s recognition in Charter Communications, Inc. v. County of Santa Cruz that unlike private businesses, local governments are accountable to voters with interests beyond profit maximization.
The FCC’s preemption of ownership of municipal property placed in the public right of way, such as street light poles and traffic signals, isn’t based on powers granted by congress, the local governments’ brief further argues…
The Communications Act of 1934’s only affirmative grant of authority with respect to regulation of access to utility poles and similar structures…does not reach municipal property…There is no response to our argument that the Act gives the Commission no general roving authority to regulate private or public property merely because it is convenient or even necessary for use in telecommunications.
In this latest reply, which is signed by two of the four, Verizon and Sprint, mobile industry mouthpieces said the FCC’s “authority to interpret and apply the Communications Act” is “well-established”, and the rules it adopted were “common-sense interpretations of the statutes as they apply to all telecommunications services, an action clearly within its statutory discretion”.
They go even further, and say flat out that requiring carriers to go to court to get permission to build once a shot clock runs out is “reasonable” and “the commission’s decision to take a more moderate tack is thus more than justified by the record”.
Verizon is using a legally shaky ruling by the Federal Communications Commission to shake down the City of Rochester, New York. Last year, the FCC ruled that publicly owned property, such as light poles or traffic signals, located in the public right of way were, in fact, part of the public right of way and not municipal property.
The problem with Verizon’s claim is that the FCC has already cut the legs out from underneath it. In its filing, Verizon described the FCC’s $270 figure as a “presumptively reasonable limit”.
Unfortunately for Verizon, in its defence of its pole preemption ruling in a San Francisco-based federal appeals court, the FCC said that “there is no presumption that fee amounts outside the safe harbor are impermissible or preempted. A safe harbor is not a ceiling”.
Rochester’s initial response to Verizon’s objections was “we have concluded that our permit fees and recurring fees for use of the City’s rights of way, including those for pole attachments related to the deployment of small wireless facilities, comply with all federal law requirements and limitations”.
Hardball of this sort is part of Verizon’s style. In North Little Rock, Arkansas, Verizon sent a similarly threatening letter to the city, telling it to tear up a master lease agreement that had already been negotiated and agreed by both sides. I’ve seen it take the position that attaching a small cell to a publicly owned light pole should cost no more than attaching a fiber optic cable to a privately owned utility pole – something in the neighborhood of $25 per year in California, according to a formula set by the California Public Utilities Commission.
Threats and lawsuits might scare some cities into giving Verizon what it wants. But the decisive battle is being fought in San Francisco, and so far it doesn’t look like Verizon will end up on the winning side.
As it tries to defend its wide-ranging preemption against challenges being heard by a federal appeals court in San Francisco, the FCC filed another set of arguments last week saying its authority, at least as far as utility poles are concerned, comes from a particular section of the communications act of 1996. But it admits in its brief that its authority only exists “absent state regulation”.
When it passed the 1996 act, congress adopted a process that’s known as “reverse preemption”. It gave the FCC the job of regulating the use of utility property by telecoms companies, but allowed states to take the job back and do it themselves. Which California has been doing for decades.
Except, the FCC is saying, when a state, such as California, does it instead.
The FCC already admitted to the court that it’s claim that cities and counties don’t actually own facilities they pay for and install is limited to situations where an agency also regulates the use of the right of way. Its defensible perimeter is even smaller now that it’s leaning on a section of federal law that bans it from interfering with state regulators, like the California Public Utilities Commission.
The mobile industry’s arguments focus on whether the FCC has the authority to tell states and local governments how to manage and allow access to the public right of way. There’s no doubt the FCC has some role to play, but it’s a largely moot question in California where state law already limits local discretion over street and sidewalk access to short term, technical requirements about how to patch up holes and when to block traffic. Telecoms company have the right to plant poles and boxes in California’s right of way for free, with few restrictions.
What the carriers and lobbyists don’t explain, though, is where the FCC gets the authority to, in effect, confiscate property – light poles and traffic signals – owned by local governments and declare that those are available to private companies on the same free-for-all basis.
The best they can do is to say that even though congress said the FCC couldn’t preempt state and local property rights in similar circumstances, as it did in section 224 of the 1996 communications act, it didn’t say the FCC couldn’t in other circumstances…
Congress’s decision not to grant the FCC authority over government property in one statutory provision does not preclude that authority in an entirely different provision. In fact, the presumption is just the opposite: because Congress explicitly foreclosed regulation of government property in Section 224, its failure to do so indicates that such regulation is not foreclosed in another section…It is entirely reasonable for the FCC to conclude that Congress intended Section 224 to cover privately-owned poles and that public poles fall within the ambit of Section 253, which expressly addresses state and local regulation.
In other words, congress never said the FCC could.
The FCC has run into this problem twice before, and lost twice. The first time, in a case involving state-level municipal broadband regulation, the federal supreme court said the FCC was out of bounds because congress didn’t make it “unmistakably clear” that it was granting the necessary authority. That principal was reaffirmed by a federal appeals court in 2016, when it tossed out the FCC’s claim that states couldn’t limit cities’ ability to offer broadband service.