The need for mobile operators to engage in massive small cell densification with 5G is dovetailing with the shared goals of municipalities to enhance social inclusion in the digital age and promote balanced regional economic growth.

This is a development so significant that it is transforming the very nature of the relationship between the telecoms industry and municipalities – opening up existing assets such as street furniture to enable small cell deployment in a cost-effective, non-discriminatory manner.

But, in order to deliver the best outcomes for each party, a collaboration-based approach founded on the principles of minimising visual pollution and urban clutter while maximising network performance and return on investment (ROI) is required.

The European Commission’s Implementing Regulation on small area wireless access points (small cells) seeks to achieve these best outcomes through the transposition of a policy-led approach across the twenty-seven EU member states. In short, it entails a modernisation of yesterday’s planning regulations to meet the telecoms deployment needs of today.

The Barriers to Small Cell Deployment.

Historically, the planning and zoning processes under which telecoms infrastructure must undergo has represented the single most significant barrier to deployment. Fragmentation between countries, but also among municipalities within countries, increases both the cost and time associated with deployment (and, thereby, reducing ROI).

For example, while a proposed structure may be granted permission by one municipality, it could equally be refused by another – despite the features of the structures being identical. As a consequence, the result is that the digital divide is widened between those municipalities who are generally supportive of such structures and those that aren’t.

At their most basic level, of course, the purpose of planning and zoning regulations are to minimise visual pollution and urban clutter by reducing contrast between additions to the landscape and the landscape itself as much as possible. In effect, this philosophy seeks to mitigate the adverse visual impact of new developments by ensuring that they conform to their surroundings.

As the exploitation of progressively higher frequency spectrum necessitates a denser site grid in order to compensate for increased path loss, these planning and zoning challenges will only be exacerbated with the current model. However, moving forward, much of this densification will be achieved through the deployment of small cells, whose form factor is markedly different to those of traditional lattice or monopole structures.

The compact size of small cells and their low-power nature makes them an ideal candidate for deployment in a densely crowded urban environment. Unfortunately, though, the regulations in many markets are behind this emergence of small cells, leading to situations in which there are no clear deployment guidelines or where the infrastructure is treated as being similar to that of a traditional lattice or monopole structure.

Detailing the European Commission’s approach with Article 57.

The European Commission has sought to resolve these planning and zoning headaches by simplifying and streamlining regulations for small cell deployment across the continent. The so-called Implementing Regulation falls under the scope of Directive 2018/1972, which was adopted last July and will come into effect from the 21st December 2020 in all Member States, forming part of the new European Electronic Communications Code (EECC).

As a summary, Article 57 tasked the Commission with specifying the physical and technical characteristics of small cells, which includes aspects such as maximum size and weight. However, the most significant outcome of the regulation and the one that is poised to accelerate deployment is the decision to exempt small cells from municipality-served planning permits (except for environmental, historical or public safety reasons).

This exemption extends to any fees beyond basic administrative charges related to the processing of the application. Overall, the process of assessing applications for small cells should not exceed four months.

By virtue of the above, the regulation recognises that small cells are just that, small, and can be treated more favourably in the planning and zoning process relative to traditional lattice and monopole structures.

For municipalities, these exemptions will mitigate the significant administrative burden that would have otherwise been created. Similarly, for mobile operators, Article 57 will reduce both time to deployment and cost, and ensure that all competitors in the market are treated equally – preventing a scramble for exclusive access to municipality assets.

In order to minimise visual pollution and maintain safety, as mentioned, the regulation lays down very strict limits regarding the permissible size of small cell installations. A maximum volume limit of 30 litres will apply to the components of small cells that are visible to the public.

It should be noted that while the Commission has deemed this size sufficient to accommodate a small cell which can serve one or more spectrum holders (the latter enabled by active sharing or neutral hosting), it is very restrictive in the context of internal componentry requirements and even more so when juxtaposed with similar regulations in other markets such as United States (detailed later).

The EMF exposure produced by small cells, which is many times smaller than that of a traditional site, also falls under the remit of this legislation. Five installation classes are specified, each corresponding to different limits of equivalent isotropical radiated power (EIRP), with progressive minimum distances required between the main antenna lobe and human body in order to ensure safety.

Contrasting with the US approach: Size limitations vary across jurisdictions.

As alluded to earlier, the United States has been a global frontrunner in accelerating the deployment of dense wireless networks through the Federal Communications Commission’s multi-pronged “5G FAST Plan”. In essence, this has revolved around the key theme of removing barriers to infrastructure investment.

In 2018, the regulator approved a landmark declaration that established two “shot clocks” of sixty days for approving applications for colocation on existing builds and ninety days for approving new builds. In addition, similar to Article 57, it limited state and local government to charging fees that are no greater than their costs for processing applications and for managing deployments in the rights-of-way.

Despite the commonalities, there is, however, an important difference between the regulation developed by the FCC and that developed by the European Commission. In particular, this difference concerns the maximum permissible size of small cell installations.

The US specifications, for example, more closely conform to the real-world physical size requirements of small cells. The FCC ruled that each antenna (excluding associated antenna equipment) should not exceed 3 cubic feet in volume, and all antenna equipment associated with the site (excluding the antennas themselves) should not exceed 28 cubic feet in volume – both of which are markedly more generous than the aforementioned European limit of 30 litres (or just over 1 cubic foot).

As a result of the comparatively more stringent size limitations in Europe, it will not be possible to achieve the same level of performance from each individual small cell, potentially leading to an inferior mobile network experience.

Conclusion: Article 57 is a springboard for accelerated small cell rollout in Europe.

The continuing advance of regulatory regimes for planning and zoning regulations represents a welcome development in the context of small cell deployment, which has historically been fraught with significant hurdles. In Europe, the transposition of Article 57 is destined to reduce the cost and time associated with wireless network rollout, supporting economic recovery and the burgeoning digital landscape.

But the restrictive nature of the size limitations specified by the European Commission are a concern when contrasted with other leading markets such as the US. Unfortunately, this may compromise the very goal that the Commission set out to achieve with Article 57 – to accelerate 5G deployment in a manner that protects market competition while delivering the best outcomes for consumers in terms of network performance.