Shentel, FCC commissioner discuss cutting red tape

Brendan Carr, a Federal Communications Commission commissioner, speaks with Emily Wicht, a staffer for U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte on Tuesday. He was in Woodstock to visit Central High School and Shentel headquarters. Lewis Millholland / Daily

WOODSTOCK – Brendan Carr, one of the Federal Communications Commission’s five voting members, visited Central High School and Shentel headquarters Tuesday to discuss the merits of slashing red tape.

Carr arrived just a week before a critical vote in the Virginia Assembly. Shentel executives, along with other businesses and municipalities, have been working for nearly two years to get a bill through the state legislature that would make it easier for telecommunications companies to launch infrastructure projects in the commonwealth.

The bill would remove regulatory power from municipal governments, limiting the grounds on which local bodies could deny a project, and would require officials to provide feedback on a rejected application, among other measures.

“Really, we don’t understand the resistance, because we think it’s being misconstrued,” said Chris Kyle, Shentel’s vice president for industry affairs and regulatory. “Clearly, this bill still gives municipalities the right to deny cells (infrastructure projects). But what we’re trying to say is, ‘Yeah, let’s standardize this whole process, and the timelines.'”

Carr repeatedly referenced the need to cut red tape and deregulate the telecommunications industry throughout his visit.

Two Central High School students, Matthew Jordan, left, and Isaac Kibler, center, discuss the impact of broadband access on their education with Brendan Carr, right, a Federal Communications Commission commissioner. Lewis Millholland/Daily

“If we can cut the regulatory red tape, that frees up the capital for companies like this to deploy at more sites,” Carr said. “That’s why we’re sort of here, visiting these communities, because this is where it’s going to make the biggest difference.”

The nominal reason for Carr’s visit was for Shentel to show off its experimental small cell unit on Central High School’s campus. The nondescript, tiny box on a telephone pole helps manage the glut of concentrated internet demand from all the plugged-in students at the school.

Carr’s visit was particularly timely as he recently announced that the FCC will vote on an order to eliminate the historical and environmental review procedures for small cell units at its next meeting, scheduled for March 22.

“What we’ve seen is that it’s going to make a real big difference in terms of the economics, upwards of 80 percent of the regulatory costs are going to be saved for small cells,” Carr said Tuesday.

He said he believed the removal of the regulations will not be seriously damaging. Of the “thousands and thousands” of small cells that have gone through the regulatory process, he said, “almost zero had any issue.” He added that Verizon in particular only had issues with 0.3 percent of its small cell applications.

In the midst of their own red tape-cutting crusade in Virginia, Shentel executives said Tuesday there was too much “meaningless” regulation governing the wireless industry.

Marshall Pearsall, a Shentel wireless infrastructure consultant, noted, “It’s important to retain the meaningful regulation and strip away what is not meaningful.”

Kyle said that excessive regulation ultimately hurts communities.

“Just as a businessperson, there’s just a chasm of a disconnect between what local citizens, or communities need, and where the elected politicians are getting (influenced)  to place their votes,” he said.

With the difficulties in getting the bill passed in Virginia, Kyle said, “We don’t want to be doing this state-by-state.”

Currently, Shentel has operations in seven states. Willy Pirtle, Shentel senior vice president of wireless, said the ideal solution would be for the FCC to codify similar rules across the nation in a single act.

“What we’d like to do is have a bill just like the Virginia bill in every state,” Pirtle said. “But it’s going to be hard to do one at a time, 50 times, right? So, if we can get somebody at the federal level to do it once, it would be a lot easier for everybody.”

During his visit Tuesday, Carr also chatted with three Central High students about their experiences with technology-infused education. They discussed classes that taught coding, “flipped” classrooms where students listened to podcasts at home, using Google Classroom and doing homework online.

Central High junior Isaac Kibler joked that as tech became a larger role in his education, his grandma was shocked to see that his backpack “got smaller and smaller.”

Evelyn Linaburg, assistant superintendent for Shenandoah County public schools, emphasized that these digital tools are essential, since graduating students have to face off against students from northern Virginia.

“We know our kids have to compete with the all the kids who are elsewhere in Virginia, and so we’ve been trying to make sure that we are preparing them, and Shentel’s helped us. There’s no question,” Linaburg said.

Carr said the FCC was prioritizing efforts to invest more of its $10 billion annual fund in rural and under-served areas. When it comes to getting a strong education, he said, “you don’t want geography to be the limiting factor.”