Federal court fast not-so-slow tracks appeals of FCC’s preemption of local pole ownership

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The good news is that the appeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s preemption of local ownership of streetlight poles will be fast tracked. The not so good news – which isn’t exactly news to people who follow such things – is that fast is a relative term.

An order issued yesterday by the ninth circuit federal appellate court in San Francisco granted a request “to expedite oral argument” in the case, made by dozens of local governments. What that means is that the court is looking at “dates for February 2020 and the two subsequent…months” for those arguments to happen.

The judges hearing the case will also have to decide whether to handle everything at once, or break it up into more manageable bits. The primary case involves two decisions made by the FCC last year, both dealing with the way state and local governments manage access to roads and anything else considered to be the public right of way, and the degree of ownership control they can exercise over structures, such as light poles or traffic signals, they install there. One decision dealt mostly with deployment of wireline telecoms infrastructure, the other with wireless facilities.

One issue that’s particular to municipal electric utilities – whether federal law allows the FCC to regulate their utility poles – was separated out earlier. The cities and counties litigating the main case asked for arguments for and against one touch make ready rules for privately-owned utilities to be heard separately. Yesterday’s order said the three judge panel will sort that out later.

Assuming that oral arguments happen sometime between February and April, and the judges issue a decision in a three to six month time frame (typical, but it could be longer or shorter), then we won’t know if the FCC’s decisions will stand until this time next year. That’ll add to the uncertainty faced by cities as they try to manage the expected avalanche of permit applications for small cell facilities and associated fiber optic installations.