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The Federal Communications Commission will consider a plan to streamline the review process for small cell installations at its next meeting.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr last year said he would lead the agency's efforts to overhaul historic and environmental reviews for certain wireless infrastructure projects, and last week he announced details of the proposal at the Consumer Technology Association's 5G Day in Washington, D.C.

"The country that leads in 5G will be the one that moves quickly to modernize its regulations," Carr said. "So now is the time for the U.S. to act."

Carr noted that the average cost of deploying small cells — now about $35,000 each — includes an increasing share of fees originally intended for large-scale cell towers. He called those costs "unsustainable," particularly since hundreds of thousands of smaller cell sites will be needed to implement next-generation technologies.

"It’s the regulatory equivalent of requiring a commercial pilot license to fly a paper airplane," he said.

The proposal, which is set for a vote at the commission's March 22 meeting, would stipulate that small wireless deployments, like WiFi routers, signal boosters and other unlicensed equipment, are not a federal concern and would not apply under the National Historic Preservation Act or National Environmental Policy Act.

It would also establish time limits for the FCC to act on environmental assessments for large towers and remove the requirement that all proposed tower projects in floodplains include those assessments.

In addition, the rule would adjust the tribal review process — known as Section 106 — for large towers. Carr argued that an increase in those fees represented a major component of rising permit costs.

"There is no doubt that protecting and preserving the cultural and historic interests of tribal nations is important work and one that we take seriously at the commission," Carr said. "But the FCC’s current approach is creating the wrong incentives and needlessly diverting resources from serving underserved communities."

He noted that small cell projects would still be subject to any applicable state or local regulations. Local zoning requirements have frequently caused headaches for wireless infrastructure companies, but numerous state-level efforts to address those problems met resistance from local officials and residents.

Industry groups, meanwhile, praised the proposal.

"Mobile broadband is one of the most effective economic drivers in today’s connected world, and every American, whether rural, suburban or urban, should have access to robust service to reap the many benefits of mobile broadband," said Competitive Carriers Association President and CEO Steven Berry.

CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker added that Carr's measure "would address outdated federal laws that needlessly delay wireless deployments and add millions in costs, and we urge the FCC to support this common sense approach.”

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