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This is the first article in a 3-part “Trends in Permitting” series authored by Accela’s Building and Planning solution team.

America has traditionally led the way in mobility. The cell phone, smartphones, the app store, and modern 4G networks were deployed here first, and the U.S. wireless sector continues to drive our economy, power innovation across industries, and help create safer communities.

Now, the race to implement 5G has gone global and countries like China, South Korea, and Japan are doing all they can to win. Considering the economic and technological advantages of 5G, the stakes for leadership are high — and local government agencies are feeling the pressure to fast-track permitting and implementations.

Constituents and business organizations of all types demand it, and the world’s largest telecom carriers are actively rolling out 5G infrastructure and equipment that skyrocket internet speeds up to 100 times faster than current 4G networks. The Federal Communications Commission supports it. Now it’s up to government agencies to meet the regulatory challenges of quickly and efficiently deploying 5G to their constituents.

How quickly? The number of small cell deployments is expected to increase from 86,000 in 2018 to more than 800,000 by 2026, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) research. And cellular giants including Crown Castle, Verizon, ExteNet Systems and MasTec, are placing a strain on local governments as they ramp up their small cell deployment efforts.

And small cells may be causing big problems for some government agencies. Because 5G is equipment-intensive, local implementation will be much more complex than previous broadband technologies. One of the major challenges of 5G is the deployment of small cells, which are small, low-powered radio equipment and antennas used to bolster the signals of larger cellular networks.

Small cells typically have a range of less than 500 feet and must be deployed densely in urban environments to support 5G performance. In contrast to large cell towers, small cells may need to be placed every few blocks, often attached to street lights, utility poles, and buildings.

Small Cell Permitting and Right-of-Way

    In a 2018 ruling, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prevented local governments from blocking the installation of small cells in the right-of-way. However, there are steps small cell companies must take before moving forward:

  • Prior to the local installation of small cells, small cell companies typically must obtain a Right-of-Way Use Agreement with the local government.


  • Once a Right-of-Way Use Agreement is in place, a wireless service provider or wireless infrastructure company can apply for small cell permits.


  • Permit applications are then reviewed by local agencies to ensure they meet the terms of the Right-of-Way Use Agreement, which may include small cell design and installation guidelines, engineering, and applicable local codes.


  • When the permit application is approved, the small cell implementation plan is documented, and the small cell provider applies for the necessary permits, including traffic control and construction permits.

Taming the Permitting Process

Wireless carriers and other 5G proponents tout the benefits of rapid implementation, including faster internet speeds, higher bandwidth and the ability to support the ever-growing number of connected smart devices. The massive bandwidth of 5G paves the way for technology innovations including edge computing and the Internet of Things (IoT). These technologies hold the potential to boost local economic impact, accelerate job growth and provide a foundation to support the future growth of smart cities.

Wireless communications and small cell permit requests are booming in many areas. To regulate the flood of applications for small cell installations, the City of San Mateo, California has established a comprehensive design review and approval process leveraging the Accela Building Civic Application. This flexible, pre-configured solution is designed to accommodate emerging regulations and new permit types quickly and efficiently. Agencies like San Mateo can easily add small cell permits into their workflows to speed review and approval processes.
Because 5G is considered a strategic advantage for all types of businesses, many municipalities are eager to streamline and prevent potential permitting issues in meeting the demand for large numbers of small cell permits. For this reason, many U.S. agencies are considering cloud-based software solutions that automate the permitting process to eliminate paper and manual errors, slash turnaround times, and bolster citizen experiences and economic growth in their communities.

To learn more, download our whitepaper, and see how Accela can help you be prepared for the shift.

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