FCC Commissioners Butt Heads on Small-Cell Deployment

FCC Commissioners butted heads over small-cell infrastructure deployment and avoided the topic of net neutrality during a game show-themed panel Wednesday at Mobile World Congress Americas. Republicans Mike O’Rielly and Brendan Carr, along with their Democratic counterpart Mignon Clyburn, sat for a discussion hosted by CTIA pres/CEO Meredith Attwell Baker during which they took turns choosing topics from a Jeopardy-style board that included hot-button issues in the wireless industry.

Clyburn dove head first into an issue in which she knew she would be on the defensive: the role of the FCC in expediting small-cell infrastructure deployment necessary for 5G. Wireless providers have taken issue with municipalities impeding that process and are looking to the FCC to remove roadblocks. Clyburn’s push for a measured approach based on working with individual localities to identify sticking points and incentivize progress was met with opposition from O’Rielly, Carr and Baker, who are in favor of more sweeping action.

“There are bad actors in the space, and that’s going to require additional action on our behalf,” O’Rielly said. “I bring up the word preemption; we are going to need to preempt those localities that are either trying to extract a bounty in terms of profit that they think there’s an opportunity to extract from wireless providers and therefore consumers, or that has a process that will delay and belabor the deployment of technology.”

Clyburn responded, “If indeed there are jurisdictions where there are bottlenecks, let’s deal with that. Let’s not make broad policy based on the exceptions. I have never been to a community who says, ‘I really don’t want broadband and I’m going to price everyone out of the market.’”

Baker quipped she “has a list of cities” for Clyburn to visit that might change her mind. One thing everyone did agree on is the need for different, less stringent regulations for small-cell deployment than those in place for the installation of traditional large cell towers.

With time running out in the panel, both O’Rielly and Carr acknowledged their efforts to avoid selecting the topic of “Internet Freedom,” a partisan issue that has pit Clyburn against the Republicans. O’Rielly even went so far as to choose “moderator’s choice” over the FCC’s ongoing effort to roll back Title II classification of ISPs. That segment included softball questions from Baker about FCC meeting walk-up songs, favorite apps and the best part of the job. While Baker ensured the panelists that they would ultimately get to every topic on the board, she ultimately brought the session to a close without a net neutrality discussion.

Regarding the repacking of spectrum to accommodate buyers in the recent broadcast incentive auction, all three commissioners on the panel agreed that they are reluctant to delay the repacking process based on broadcasters’ requests. Wireless companies are eager to begin monetizing the spectrum they purchased earlier this year.

The commissioners all expressed hope about adhering to the original 39-month timeline that began in April, with Clyburn saying any setback “needs to be scrutinized very closely.” O’Rielly praised wireless companies that have worked to incentivize broadcasters to act more expeditiously. Wireless providers like T-Mobile, however, have asserted that the pending Sinclair-Tribune merger could also serve to slow down the process.

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