Recent FCC Action on Expanding Broadband to Multiple Tenant Environments (MTEs)

By Stephanie Neville

The FCC recently issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that could impact companies providing wireless connectivity in densely populated structures, such as apartment buildings and office buildings. In the NPRM, the FCC considers issuing regulations that could control the relationships between building owners, Distributed Antenna System (DAS) operators, and wireless providers. This, in turn, could directly affect WIA members that use and install DAS facilities. As a result, WIA has acted to ensure that our members can continue to participate in the wireless market and further promote wireless connectivity.

MTEs pose unique challenges for wireless connectivity because of heavy construction materials and the large number of wireless users. Radiofrequency (RF) signals do not easily pass through the structures of MTEs due to their dense walls. Likewise, with fewer RF signals inside MTEs, the higher concentration of wireless users is unable to access much-needed higher frequency spectrum bands. Adding to these challenges, many building owners and managers lack technical expertise to implement changes that could improve connectivity in the building. Poor wireless connectivity decreases the enjoyment of wireless users within the building, which negatively impacts the MTEs’ business.

To combat these challenges, WIA members deploy DAS networks, which consist of fiber, antennas, and other equipment that run through the ceilings, floors, and walls of MTEs. Typically, DAS facilities function as “neutral hosts” that can deliver the signals of multiple service providers. A DAS operator contracts with a building owner to build out a DAS network within the building, and wireless service providers then contract with the DAS operator to provide their services using the operator’s infrastructure. Members also place antennas on the rooftops of MTEs to provide wireless service to the surrounding area.

WIA filed Comments and Reply Comments in response to the FCC’s NPRM, advocating for  maintaining the existing light-touch regulatory scheme for the internal DAS networks within MTEs. WIA supports this free market approach that permits DAS operators to contract with MTE owners to build a network. WIA also argued for allowing wireless providers to contract with the neutral host operator to service the building. Competition motivates MTE building owners, DAS operators, and wireless service providers to operate at maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

WIA also supports this approach for the rooftop antennas where MTE building owners, wireless infrastructure providers that own and deploy these antennas, and wireless service providers work together to provide service to the surrounding area. Indeed, these parties have been able to work constructively to increase wireless coverage with limited regulatory constraints.

WIA also called attention to the important differences between DAS agreements and rooftop agreements. DAS networks service the population within that structure. In contrast, rooftop antennas usually serve the surrounding community, which means they function similarly to towers and small cells. This key distinction raises different policy issues and questions about the FCC’s authority. As such, the FCC should not attempt to regulate DAS and rooftop antennas in the same way. In addition, WIA continued to stress the FCC’s lack of authority in regulating networks deployed by DAS operators. Finally, WIA requested that the FCC carefully define “MTE.” An overly broad definition could lead to regulation of DAS networks beyond those in residential and office buildings and could impact networks that have different technical demands, such as those in stadiums, hotels, and hospitals.

The FCC asks important questions regarding the state of wireless connectivity within MTEs. While it is unclear what, if any, actions the FCC will take on this issue, WIA members will continue to work to find solutions that provide the best wireless service possible to as many Americans as possible.

Stephanie Neville is a legal intern with WIA’s Government Affairs team and is a third-year law student at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.