EDITOR’S NOTE: We are excited to present this entry in our TMT2020 series, which reflects the key technology, media, and telecoms legal issues that are expected to impact today’s organizations and tomorrow’s marketplace. It also provides an opportunity to highlight contributions by TMT associates across our global offices and practice areas.
Today’s smartphones rely on mobile broadband connectivity that is supported in large part by cellular base stations installed on traditional antenna towers. But the smartphones and other connected consumer electronic devices of tomorrow will connect over dense networks using much smaller access points located much more closely to one another than traditional cell phone towers. As network operators consider how, and just as importantly, where to install this new infrastructure, they should consider the benefits of partnering with solar infrastructure manufacturers to incorporate mobile broadband antennas into solar power equipment.
Mobile broadband networks and smartphone technology together have revolutionized the way people access information and connect to other people, products and services across the globe. As more and more people increasingly rely on mobile broadband and smartphone technology, network operators will need to rapidly expand network capacity. In addition, future applications and devices—particularly those riding over fifth generation (“5G”) networks—are expected to demand higher data throughput and lower latency. Network operators are considering a variety of options to meet these increased demands, including the use of small cells and distributed antenna systems (“DAS”).
While few observers would disagree with the growing need for additional mobile broadband network capacity, network operators face a variety of obstacles to deploying additional wireless infrastructure, including DAS and small cells. One of the limitations network operators face in seeking to deploy small cells and DAS are infrastructure siting approvals. Traditionally, state and local jurisdictions retain authority to approve applications to site physical network infrastructure. Network operators often experience significant delays before receiving approval to install necessary network gear.
The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has taken steps to alleviate delays. For example, in 2014 the FCC adopted rules to make it easier to deploy small wireless communications facilities on utility structures and on buildings and other non-tower structures in certain circumstances. Most recently, the FCC adopted additional relief from historic preservation review for certain categories of small cell systems. These rule changes will help to defray some of the costs and efforts necessary to deploy small cells and distributed antenna systems, but problems remain.
Meanwhile, the federal government and several state and local governments have fully embraced the environmental (and economic) benefits of solar technology. The solar energy industry has seen remarkable growth over the past decade fueled by ambitious renewable energy policies at the federal and state level. Federal, state and local jurisdictions have promoted solar growth through tax incentives like the Solar Investment Tax Credit, and other favorable regulatory policies such as renewable portfolio standards and net metering. Renewable portfolio standards require utility companies to source a certain amount of the energy they generate or sell from renewable sources, while net metering allows residential and commercial customers who generate their own electricity from (typically rooftop) solar panels to feed electricity they do not use back into the grid and in return receive utility bill credits.
As mobile broadband and solar technologies both continue to mature, industry insiders should evaluate the potential synergies between the two technologies. There do not appear to be any technical challenges to incorporating DAS or small cell technology into solar infrastructure, and mobile network operators could benefit from partnering with solar energy infrastructure manufacturers to incorporate small cell or DAS technology into solar equipment. Mobile operators could leverage residential and business consumers’ interest in tax credits and other solar incentives to increase their network presence, and potentially install transmission equipment under more favorable local siting rules. At the same time, state and local jurisdictions should consider exempting from local siting regulations—to the extent necessary—small cells and DAS that are incorporated into solar energy equipment.
The FCC has encouraged stakeholders to submit creative thinking to the agency to help meet the infrastructure challenges to deploying 5G services. Leveraging solar infrastructure incentives to help deploy ubiquitous 5G mobile broadband networks may be one idea worthy of further consideration.
 Acceleration of Broadband Deployment by Improving Wireless Facilities Siting Policies, Report and Order, 29 FCC Rcd 12865, 12901-12 ¶ 76-103 (2014), Erratum, 30 FCC Rcd 31 (2015).
 See Wireless Telecommunications Announces Execution of First Amendment to the Nationwide Programmatic Agreement for the Collocation of Wireless Antennas, Public Notice, DA 16-900 (WTB Aug. 8, 2016).