Want 5G? Empower Homeowners
The move to small cells and fixed wireless broadband means states, cities, and the FCC are changing their regulatory approaches. For decades, wireless providers have competed primarily on coverage, which meant building large cell towers all over the country, each one serving hundreds of people. That’s changing. As Commissioner Carr noted,
"5G networks will look very different from today’s 4G deployments. 5G will involve the addition of hundreds of thousands of new, small-scale facilities with antennas no larger than a small backpack."
Currently, wireless companies don’t have many good options when it comes to placing these lower-power, higher-bandwidth “small cells.” They typically install small cells and 5G transmitters on public rights-of-way and on utility poles, but there may not be room on poles and attachment fees might be high.
One thing the FCC might consider to stimulate 5G and small cell investment is to dust off its 20 year-old over-the-air-reception-device (OTARD) rules. These little-known rules protect homeowners and renters from unwarranted regulation of TV and broadband antennas placed on their property. If liberalized, the OTARD rules would open up tens of millions of other potential small cell sites–on rooftops, on balconies, and in open fields and backyards around the country.
In the early 1990s, cities and homeowner associations would sometimes prohibit, charge for, or regulate satellite dishes that homeowners or renters installed on their rooftops or balconies. Lawmakers saw a problem and wanted to jumpstart competition in television (cities had authorized cable TV monopolies for decades and cable had over 95% of the pay-TV market).
In the 1996 Telecom Act, then, Congress instructed the FCC to increase TV competition by regulating the regulators. Congress said that state, local, and HOA restrictions cannot impose restrictions that
"impair a viewer’s ability to receive video programming services through devices designed for over-the-air reception of television broadcast signals, multichannel multipoint distribution service [MMDS], or direct broadcast satellite services."
With these congressional instructions, the FCC created its OTARD rules, informally known as the “pizza box rule.” Briefly stated, if your TV antenna, satellite TV receiver, or “fixed wireless” antenna is smaller than a large pizza (1 meter diameter–no cell towers in front yards), you are free to install the necessary equipment on property you control, like a yard or balcony. (There are some exceptions for safety issues and historical buildings.) The 1996 law expressly protects MMDS (now called “broadband radio service”), which includes spectrum in the 2.1 GHz, 2.5 GHz, 2.6 GHz, 28 GHz, 29 GHz, and 31 GHz bands. The Clinton FCC expanded the rules to protect, broadly, any antennas that “receive or transmit fixed wireless signals.” You can even install a mast with an antenna that extends up to 12 feet above your roofline.
The rules protect fixed wireless antennas and could see new life in the 5G world. Carriers are building small cells and fixed wireless primarily to provide faster broadband and “mobile TV” services. Millions of Americans now view their cable and Netflix content on mobile devices and carriers are starting to test mobile-focused pay-TV services. AT&T has Watch TV, T-Mobile is expected to deploy a mobile TV service soon because of its Layer3 acquisition, and reporting suggests that Verizon is approaching YouTube TV and Apple to supply TV for its 5G service.
The FCC’s current interpretation of its OTARD rules doesn’t help 5G and small cell deployment all that much, even though the antennas are small and they transmit TV services. The actual rules don’t say this but the FCC’s interpretation is that their OTARD protections don’t protect antenna “hubs” (one-to-many transmitters like small cells). The FCC liberalized this interpretation in its Massport proceedingand allowed hub antennas on commercial property but did not extend this interpretation for homeowners’ antennas. In short, under the current interpretation, cities and HOAs can regulate, charge for, and prohibit the installation of 5G and small cells on private property.
The FCC should expand its rules to protect the installation of (low power) 5G and small cell hubs on private property. This would directly improve, per the statute, “viewers’ ability to receive video programming services” via wireless. It would have the ancillary effect of improving other wireless services. The prospect of installing small cells on private property, even temporarily, should temper the fees carriers are charged to use the public rights-of-way and poles.
In rural areas, the FCC might also consider modifying the rules to allow masts that extend beyond 12 feet above the roofline. Transmitters even a few feet taller would improve wireless backhaul and coverage to nearby homes, thus increasing rural broadband deployment and IP-based television services.
OTARD reform is especially timely today because the Wheeler and Pai FCCs have freed up several bands of spectrum and fixed wireless is surging. Fixed wireless and mesh network providers using CBRS and other spectrum bands could benefit from more installation sites, particularly in rural areas. C Spire, for instance, is creating “hub homes” for fixed wireless, and Starry and Rise Broadband are expanding their service areas. CableLabs is working on upgrading cable networks for mobile and 5G backhaul and cable operators might benefit from OTARD reform and more outside infrastructure.
Modifying the OTARD rules might be controversial but modification directly gives consumers and homeowners more control over improving broadband service in their neighborhood, just as the rules improved TV competition in the past. Courts are pretty deferential when agencies change an interpretation of an existing rule. Further, as the agency said years ago:
"The Federal Communications Commission has consistently maintained that it has the ultimate responsibility to determine whether the public interest would be served by construction of any specific antenna tower."
The future of wireless services is densification–putting fiber and small cells all over downtowns and neighborhoods in order to increase broadband capacity for cutting-edge services, like smart glasses for the blind and remote-controlled passenger cars. The OTARD rules and the FCC’s authority over wireless antennas provides another tool to improve wireless coverage and TV services.
Photo credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock