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Modernizing rules to make 5G a reality

We all have heard about the many benefits the Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring: revolutionizing existing industries and creating new ones, delivering a new productivity jump and creating more efficiencies, and by this, giving a boost to our economy. On the societal front, the Fourth Industrial Revolution promises to bring advancement in our standard of living: making our life better, safer, healthier, and freeing up more time.

But this will not happen automatically. Well-crafted policies are needed. Governments and policymakers can do a lot to facilitate the deployment of modern telecom infrastructure able to respond to the connectivity needs of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Enabling a wealth of new use-cases like autonomous cars, remote surgery or live virtual reality streaming requires the capacity, speed and low latency that 5G networks will bring. In high-traffic areas like city centers, networks will become much denser to provide excellent customer experience. Providing huge bandwidth and capacity also requires more and smaller antennas (often called small cells). Ideally, outdoor small cells will be placed on public buildings or on publicly owned city infrastructure, and thus, opening up access to physical real estate for 5G infrastructure is critical.

Smooth deployment of small cells has however proven difficult in many geographies as unpractical regulations often stand in the way of granting easy access to sites for small cells in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost. National, regional and local administrative rules are often not uniform and can translate into various required forms and authorizations, time-consuming procedures, and multiple approvals from various authorities. On the one hand, operators must submit requests to install small cells, on the other hand, authorities must process those requests and possibly follow up contentious situations. With increasing small cell deployment demands, the work volume increases which can cause delays in administrative approvals, and consequently in rolling out networks. As such, consistency, simplicity, harmonization and replicability are principles which should be pursued in revising deployment rules. In addition, unreasonable fees associated with the granting of the permits should be avoided.

Good progress has recently been achieved in the US and in Europe in modernizing rules to facilitate and incentivize the deployment of small cells. Those initiatives can serve as best practices for other geographies, who are adapting regulation conceived 20 years ago with a macro architecture in mind.

  • In the US, the most recent actions from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) create national guidelines for what are reasonable local regulations of small cells to smooth the disparities among local jurisdictions. As such, the FCC recently adopted an order that seeks to significantly ease the siting of wireless infrastructure at the state and at local level, providing direction to state and local governments regarding permissible timelines, fees and other regulations for processing applications to install wireless infrastructure. Estimates of expected regulatory costs savings range from 2 4 $billion. 
  • In Europe, small cell legislation has extensively been discussed at European Commission level, to ensure that best practices and recommendations are adopted and promoted by European member states.  The new European telecom framework (the ‘Code’) has provisions aiming at a harmonized deployment of small cells in European countries. The Code provides an umbrella definition of small cells and the exemption from any individual prior planning permit for the deployment of small cells if they meet specific characteristics including physical and technical characteristics such as maximum size, weight, and where appropriate emission power.

5G is a combination of wireless and fixed network technologies and 5G networks will require a massive growth of fiber to connect network elements and small cells. Here as well, regulators need to look at measures to reduce the cost of laying fiber networks. Civil engineering, including the digging-up of roads and streets as well as in-house cabling, account for up to 80% of the cost of deployment. To reduce those costs, as an example, the ‘Broadband Cost Reduction Directive’ in Europe aims at incentivizing cooperation, infrastructure sharing and synergies across utility sectors (energy, water, transport,…) and as such creating more efficient and cost-effective deployments of new fiber networks.

With deployments of 5G networks in the coming months and years across geographies, it is critical that unreasonable practices hindering those deployments do not stand in the way and delay users from benefiting from 5G. Policy makers around the globe should therefore continue to assess current policy and regulatory practices and implement appropriate reforms where those make sense.

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