Andrew Afflerbach, PhD, PE
CEO & Director of Engineering
In the coming months, localities around the nation can expect to begin receiving a flood of applications to construct the first of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of new telecommunications towers up to 300 feet high, plus applications to attach hundreds of thousands of “small cell” wireless devices on buildings, utility poles, and new structures.
A major driver of this activity is FirstNet, the federal organization overseeing the deployment of a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). AT&T, which won a $6.5 billion, 25-year federal award in 2017, will build the network and offer broadband service to public safety agencies. Those agencies are also free to choose other providers; Verizon, for example, already has contracts with many public safety agencies and has stated it will be making upgrades.
These developments will bring clear public safety benefits. And they will occur at the same time carriers are increasing capacity for their commercial service. As demand for mobile data balloons, the major mobile network operators are investing tens of billions of dollars to enhance their networks by upgrading existing antennas and adding new sites.
We note that while the NPSBN has been the product of negotiations and agreements between the federal government and AT&T, implementation will play out locally. There are steps localities and states can take to process these applications while best serving local interests.
Now is the time to ensure that ordinances, policies, and application processes are in place; develop plans to coordinate among multiple applicants; address community concerns (especially regarding aesthetics); and explore opportunities to satisfy municipal infrastructure needs during this extraordinary buildout period.
Properly handling these applications is particularly important because a Federal Communications Commission order sets time limits of 150 days for a locality to act on applications for new wireless facilities or 90 days for modifications (co-locations) to existing facilities. These time limits are often called the “shot clocks”—and if a locality does not properly handle an application, it might lose its ability to influence how new infrastructure is built.
The NPSBN is a next-generation public safety network conceived after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, interoperability and other problems hampered communications and contributed to the loss of life among some first responders—especially firefighters who did not receive warnings to evacuate the twin towers. The physical destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 compounded awareness that many public safety networks are fragile and outdated.
In 2012, Congress created FirstNet as an organization within the Department of Commerce and gave it the job of building the NPSBN, a nationwide, interoperable, IP-based, high-speed mobile broadband communications network that will give first responders priority access.
Following a competitive bid process, AT&T was awarded the contract, which included 10 MHz of prime spectrum. All 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia have “opted in,” meaning they accept AT&T’s plan for deployment and operation of FirstNet. However, local agencies retain autonomy, and will choose whether to use FirstNet services or another provider.
WHAT LOCALITIES CAN DO
We have found that when local governments take commonsense steps to ensure they have appropriate wireless siting policies and ordinances in place, they get the best outcomes in terms of improved public safety communications and higher aesthetic value. As applications for siting FirstNet equipment and other commercial wireless facilities begin to arrive, localities and public utilities can take a number of specific steps:
- Localities need to understand their state’s FirstNet plans. Their first step should be to communicate with their FirstNet “state point of contact” (SPOC); a full list of such contacts can be found here. SPOCs may be able to help localities understand where AT&T and other carriers and wireless infrastructure providers want to address service gaps.
- Localities need to establish consistent local processes. CTC offered guidance on this issue in a 2017 report, “How the Local Oversight Process Addresses the Concerns of the Public Sector in Small Cell Siting.” In CTC’s experience, proper processes and coordination can protect local interests while facilitating orderly and well-engineered buildouts.
- Localities need to facilitate carrier infrastructure applications while protecting local interests. AT&T, Verizon, and other carriers will be asking to build in the name of public safety and better commercial service to residents. (Carriers may also outsource the work of installing towers and other infrastructure to third parties.) It is not unreasonable for localities to seek expert second opinions on whether a proposed antenna siting is the only suitable approach. An independent engineering analysis can help check applicants’ claims or assess alternative infrastructure sites.
- Localities need to be prepared to handle wireless facility applications. Because of the combined effects of FirstNet and commercial network upgrades, carriers will be requesting huge numbers of attachments from municipalities, counties, states, and municipal utilities nationwide. CTC’s 2016 report, “How Localities Can Improve Wireless Service for the Public While Addressing Citizen Concerns,” provides a comprehensive guide to how localities can address these matters, whether for FirstNet-related attachment requests or other commercial deployments. Localities will need to find ways to handle siting applications that come in batches of hundreds or more and that involve structures like light poles in addition to utility poles.
- States and localities can consider assessing AT&T’s deployment by conducting an independent baseline network performance analysis, illustrating where new infrastructure would enhance performance. These entities can also create or update coordinated processes for deployment of infrastructure in public rights-of-way.