FCC moves to streamline wireless buildout

Plans call for bolstering use of new small cells and other technology

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday announced plans to help streamline wireless broadband buildout in the U.S., with initiatives that include clarifying a provision requiring local review of modifications to cell towers.

Other plans include launching an FCC review of ways to expedite the placement of temporary cell towers, such as so-called cells on wheels (COW) that can be used during special events like the presidential inauguration, where thousands of cellphone users in a crowded area can sap wireless capacity.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also said there will be further FCC actions this year to streamline the deployment of small cells and distributed antenna systems that can boost wireless connections in areas between larger cell towers or in neighborhoods where tall buildings block wireless connections.

Part of the purpose of the FCC's initiatives is to add more certainty and flexibility to the wireless market, where companies have invested more than $25 billion each year in mobile infrastructure, Genachowski said in a statement.

"Just as is the case for our nation's roads and bridges, we must continue to invest in improvements in cell towers and transmission equipment in order to ensure ubiquitous, high-speed Internet for all Americans," he said.

He said FCC policies must adapt to technological advances that can help the wireless buildout. These advances include small cells, a catch-all term for a range of types of smaller antennas that can, for example, be attached to light poles and buildings to supplement larger antennas on towers, since tower construction projects are expensive may be opposed by nearby residents and businesses.

As part of the announcement, the FCC clarified a technical provision in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that called for review by local governments and planning agencies of modifications to existing cell towers and the equipment housed in base stations at the bottom of the towers.

The FCC didn't specify the terms of the clarification it made but said the change would accelerate deployment of high-speed mobile broadband. Local review processes for cell towers and related infrastructure can take months or years, and shortening that period has been a priority at the FCC.

Friday's announcement comes four days after President Obama, in his inaugural address, mentioned the need for improved roads and networks in order to bring new jobs and businesses to the U.S.

Also on Friday, AT&T announced plans to buy 700MHz spectrum from Verizon for $1.9 billion. The move will help AT&T deploy 4G LTE to 42 million people in 18 states and meet mobile broadband demand from users of smartphones and tablets.

The moves the FCC announced on Friday are part of the agency's Broadband Acceleration Initiative. That program, and the Connect America Fund, which the FCC set up in 2012, stem from the National Broadband Plan, an ambitious and broad set of steps aimed at enabling faster wired and wireless service in the U.S. The plan includes allocating more spectrum to wireless carriers.

Efforts to deploy high-speed mobile broadband networks usually involve attempts to upgrade 3G wireless service to 4G LTE or 4G HSDPA networks, which are generally 10 times faster than 3G networks. That means, on average, increasing downlink speeds from 1Mbps with 3G to 10Mbps with 4G.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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