The Three “Ps” of Managing Small Cell Applications: Process, Process, Process

Andrew Afflerbach, PhD, P.E.
CEO & Chief Technology Officer

By now you’ve heard of the Federal Communications Commission’s wireless preemption Order—scheduled to take effect in 2019—mandating that wireless companies get low-cost, streamlined access to public property to mount small cell facilities.

We recently outlined Ten Strategies that your locality, state agency, or utility can consider in this newly restrictive environment amid a rollout of millions of new pieces of equipment on public property nationwide in the coming years. But in many ways, it comes back to one thing: process. (Or to borrow from the old real estate maxim, there are three Ps when it comes to small cells: “process, process, process.”)

Your locality or agency should clearly and efficiently state existing processes—and, where necessary, create new ones within the scope of the Order (and subject to the advice of your legal counsel). Utilities will have additional complex technical and management considerations related to placing small cells on electrical utility poles; these details will be discussed in a later blog.

Defining and mapping your processes represents an opportunity to ensure safety, maintain aesthetics, and recoup your costs.

The sooner you adopt a process to manage applications for small cells in the right-of-way, the better. The FCC’s move establishes sharp time limits (often called “shot clocks”) within which applications must be processed: 60 days for installations on existing structures, 90 days for new poles. But the clock pauses if the application is incomplete and you notify the applicant within 10 days. That’s only feasible if you have—you guessed it—a stated process.

In addition, your locality or agency should not have to bear the costs of the application process. While the FCC Order set some limits on fees, it also says you can collect fees that are a “reasonable approximation” of your “actual and reasonable costs.”

You should also assess penalties for safety violations or unauthorized installations. But you can’t do that if there’s no process for detecting the problems in the first place.

CTC has developed a solution. We work with public agencies and their counsel to define, first, a draft of the technical elements of a master lease (or the overall contract under which applications may be filed) and second, an application and review process defining technical and aesthetic requirements, outlining the players and key people responsible, and establishing timeframes and site inspection procedures.

We recommend that you:

Prepare robust agreements and develop a set of wireless and wireline installation standards or a design manual for the uniform, safe, and reliable installation of network nodes, poles, and transmission facilities.

Establish processes and dedicate resources so that the review can be conducted within FCC-mandated timeframes. To adhere to application processing time requirements (and for the sake of efficacy and cost-effectiveness), streamline and closely manage application and related processes.

Implement an electronic application database and site information tracking database. In addition to application information, information related to the sites should also be captured and maintained, and any conflicts at proposed sites flagged. This may also enable application and status information to be made available in real time to the public and to the applicant.

Adopt new application types. These may include four general categories—new, colocation, replacement, and minor modifications—and will dictate the level of application processing required and enable you to deploy staff efficiently.

Centralize application reviews and perform tasks in parallel where possible. This will help reduce processing times, ensure consistency, minimize staff time, and improve service.

Develop complete checklists for application fields and step-by-step review processes.

Implement pre-installation site inspections. Site inspections before construction enable you to check whether the installation would be in accord with technical and aesthetic requirements—and whether the new infrastructure could be modified, concealed, or moved to a nearby structure to mitigate impacts.

Create a post-installation inspection procedure. Comparing proposed construction drawings with the actual structure and inspecting the restoration of the area will force deployments to match approved designs and mitigate safety and other violations.

Determine your “reasonable costs.” Your work to review small cell applications may be far costlier than the FCC admits, and you should define and document that effort to support your application fees. For some clients, CTC is conducting detailed breakdowns of exactly how much staff time it takes—and thus how much it costs—to do everything from reviewing applications to inspecting the as-built project.

Implement a process to handle contract breaches, standards violations, and safety violation. You must be able to manage the claims, provide self-help remedies to the vendors, and establish conflict resolution procedures.

Collect and analyze metrics related to application processing (e.g., average time spent at a “stop” in the process) to identify trends and potential process improvements.

And if you are a locality with a municipal electric utility, you should work with your utility leaders to define and understand your respective roles, develop consistent processes, and conduct coordinated reviews with clear handoff steps.

Published: Thursday, December 13, 2018 by CTC Technology & Energy