It is an exciting and challenging time to be part of the wireless industry. There is an unprecedented consumer demand for wireless products and services, especially data. Consider the FCC’s latest Mobile Competition Report that highlights industry developments: There are almost 400 million connections, a healthy 5 percent increase from 2015, and data use has soared to 13.7 trillion megabytes a 42 percent increase from the prior year and a whopping 238 percent increase from just two years ago. On an individual basis, monthly consumer data use is up 39 percent since 2015, and over 50 percent of the American public has gone completely wireless.
With all this good news comes the realization that the wireless industry is under enormous competitive pressures. The same FCC data shows consumer prices, by one measurement, have fallen by 7 percent in one year’s time, and the cost of a megabyte, according to another source, has dropped from $1.37 to less than hałf a cent over the last decade. To put that in perspective, annual inflation has increased in the last five years by 4.5 percent, while wireless inflation has dropped by 8 percent. At the same time, network investment and overall speeds have increased substantially. By all accounts, wireless industry skeptics have been forced to acknowledge these positive developments for consumers, even if they loathe to utter the words “effectively competitive.” But, I dare you to find another communications industry segment — or commercial segment for that matter — that has produced so many consumer benefits while experiencing price reductions and fierce competition over the last many years.
I’m sure that those who love to regulate will try to make the weak case that the status of the wireless industry occurred because of — and not despite — the FCC’s regulations, particularly our net neutrality burdens. Beyond being desperate to validate their myopic decision, this argument completely ignores the counterfactual, or what would have occurred absent such burdens. The reality is that had the FCC rejected the liberal mantra of net neutrality, the entire wireless picture could have been even better.
The FCC is well aware that industry is facing numerous challenges to install the hundreds of thousands of new wireless towers and antennas that are going to be needed to meet the insatiable demand for mobile services and new wireless technologies, such as 5G. To effectuate this, these towers and antennas must be installed throughout American communities, which to date has generated improper and unacceptable behavior by some state, local or tribal governments.
In particular, the FCC’s extensive record demonstrates that industry is experiencing excessive delays and moratoria when filing siting applications for access to locality rights of way. In fact, the record is replete with reports of long pre-application processes before an application can be filed or is deemed complete and of applications going through two years or more of review before a decision is actually made. For instance, one company reports that, in Florida alone, 26 jurisdictions have installed moratoria. Although most of these moratoria last for more than 180 days, in the case of at least two localities the moratoria extended more than two years. Permitting applications are being rejected for indefensible reasons, such as aesthetics, radio-frequency concerns or because localities don’t agree with the proposed type or placement of equipment.
Finally, providers are being forced to pay astronomical fees for approvals, which is unsustainable when thousands of small cells, generally the size of bread boxes, will need to be deployed. Providers report that they are paying not only large one-time application fees, but also franchise, use, contractor and even annual fees. For instance, we have seen some localities charge as much as $5,000 or $10,000 per site to review antenna structure applications and agreements. Some localities charge for the consultants reviewing siting applications, which can be $8,500 per pole, with additional inspection fees after installation. Some also charge recurring yearly fees of $6,000 per pole, while others take a percentage of gross revenues.
These are not acceptable responses to new small cell technologies that need to be deployed for the United States to maintain its position as the leader in wireless communications. Sadly, the real loser in all of this is the consumer, who must wait longer for access to new technologies, such as the internet of things. The FCC has three open proceedings about facilitating infrastructure installations, and the chairman has also instituted the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to examine and resolve these types of issues. If this situation is not resolved quickly and satisfactorily, the FCC must be willing to use its preemption authority against those governmental entities.
9-1-1 Fee Diversion
The enormous successes of the wireless industry, not just over the last couple of years but the last many decades, has been greeted with attempts by creative state, local and tribal governments to target this success to fill their own coffers. Nowhere is this more apparent than the diversion of 9-1-1 fees by state governments. In my opinion, it is unconscionable that some states divert fees collected for legitimate and needed 9-1-1 communications capabilities to unrelated purposes, threatening the public’s safety for short-term budgetary relief. In fact, I think we should call this practice what it really is: stealing. State governments are stealing their citizens’ hard-earned incomes under the premise that they’re being used for public safety officials.
I certainly understand why some see this as a vexing problem to solve because it intertwines tax policy, jurisdictional lines, federalism, public safety, and consumers. However, it is precisely these types of issues that we expect our policymakers in government to address. Accordingly, not too long ago, I put forward three non-mutually exclusive ideas for the FCC to increase the pressure and force states to end this practice: 1) The FCC retains the right to bar diverting states from imposing 9-1-1 fees on interstate services, meaning a good percentage of wireless services, landline voice services and all VoIP services, at least in my opinion, would be off limits for such state coffers; 2) as it has done in other areas, the FCC can prevent communications providers from including misrepresentations or inaccurate information in requisite consumer bills, thus we could effectively prevent providers from collecting such funds or require them to remit the funds to diverting states; and 3) the FCC can and should exclude any person representing a diverting state from participating on an FCC advisory committee.
In addition to FCC options, Congress has full ability to correct diverting states’ practices either by directly applying existing law or by exerting necessary leverage via its extensive grants and funding regimes.
Unified Emergency Number
If you travel the Northeast corridor via car, you will see signs for multiple wireless numbers to dial for numerous critical situations, including aggressive driving and DUIs. Pound 77 in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey; Star 47 in North Carolina; Star 77 in Massachusetts; and Star 11 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. There’s also Star 847 in Tennessee, Pound 4357 in Wyoming, Star 55 in Oklahoma and Star 482 for parts of Kansas, just to give some examples. My point is that, depending on where a person physically is at the moment, the mobile telephone number to report critical situations may be different.
This raises a host of questions. Why do we force the American public to remember these different numbers or read a roadside sign while driving along the highway? Are these numbers being used effectively to shift some vital mobile emergency traffic away from the 9-1-1 calling centers? Would a unified number be beneficial to wireless consumers, public safety officials and even wireless providers? If so, what prevents the development and deployment of a unified number?
To some degree, these are rhetorical questions in my opinion, or I wouldn’t be raising this matter. We used to have a similar issue with regard to the larger public safety emergency numbers until Congress and the emergency communications community agreed to set 9-1-1 as the official emergency number. Why wouldn’t the same arguments that led to that decision apply here? The simple answer is that they should. We should have a unified wireless number for non-9-1-1 calls.
Edited for length and style, this article condenses remarks made by FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly at the New Jersey Wireless Association Deployment Summit on Oct. 18. You can download the transcript at www.fcc.gov/document/comm-orielly-remarks-new-jersey-wireless-association.
Don Bishop is Executive Editor and Associate Publisher. Bishop joined AGL Media Group in 2004. He helped to launch and was the founding editor of AGL Magazine, the AGL Bulletin email newsletter (now AGL eDigest) and DAS and Small Cells magazine (now AGL Small Cell Magazine). He served as host for AGL Conferences from 2010 to 2012, appearing at 12 conferences. Bishop writes and otherwise obtains editorial content published in AGL Magazine, AGL eDigest and the AGL Media Group website. Bishop also photographs and films conferences and conventions. Many of his photographs have appeared on the cover, in articles and in the “AGL Tower of the Month” center spread photo feature in AGL Magazine. During his time with Wiesner Publishing, Primedia Business Information and AGL Media Group, he helped to launch several magazines and edited or managed editorial departments for a dozen magazines and their associated websites, newsletters and live event coverage. He is a former property manager, radio station owner and CEO of a broadcast engineering consulting firm. He was elected a Fellow of the Radio Club of America in 1988, received its Presidents Award in 1993, and served on its board of directors for nine years. Don Bishop may be contacted at: [email protected]