Expect more federal preemption of local wireless site reviews

There’s no partisan bickering in Washington over locating cell sites. The great divide is between federal and local governments. After making the obligatory nods toward local communities, top aides to all five FCC commissioners agreed that clearing the path for the millions of new cell sites that 5G networks will require is a top priority. They told the audience at the CTIA’s trade show in Las Vegas yesterday that in order to make 5G work, the cost of constructing cell sites, particularly the time and money required to get permit approval from cities and counties, has to come down.

Limits on access to the public right of way by local governments have to be trimmed back or eliminated completely, restrictions on locations need to go and lengthy permit approval processes have to be shortened, according to one member of the panel or another.

It was an indirect, but unanimous, endorsement of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s statement earlier in the day. Calling 5G networks “a revolution”, he said…

The nature of 5G technology doesn’t just mean more antenna sites, it also means that without such sites the benefits of 5G may be sharply diminished. In the pre-5G world, fending off sites from the immediate neighborhood didn’t necessarily mean sacrificing the advantages of obtaining service from a distant cell site. With the anticipated 5G architecture, that would appear to be less feasible, perhaps much less feasible.

The enemy, in Wheeler’s view, is “nimbyism and the recalcitrance of local authorities”.

There’s a grain of truth in that. There are enough examples of irrational, scorched earth opposition to wireless broadband expansion to fill a book, just in California. But the FCC’s track record, under Wheeler and previous chairs, is one of adopting blanket rules that squash responsible use of local discretion by way of targeting the extreme cases. Quibbling over details aside, it’s clear that he’ll have the full support of republican commissioners, as well as his fellow democrats, when he moves ahead with further federal preemption of local authority over cell site deployment.