Mobilitie’s fast and loose way of building out cellular networks has earned it and its major customer, Sprint, fines and a reprimand from the Federal Communications Commission. In a consent decree – a negotiated settlement – Mobilitie agreed to pay a $1.6 million fine and Sprint agreed to a $10 million fine for ignoring federal environmental and historic review regulations when building new towers.
The FCC’s documents don’t detail where and when the two companies sinned, but the violations were deliberate, as Mobilitie’s consent decree makes clear…
In an effort to meet certain deadlines, Mobilitie had commenced construction of certain wireless facilities without securing all necessary regulatory and environmental approvals required under the Commission’s Wireless Infrastructure Rules. Specifically, prior to construction, Mobilitie did not timely complete registration of certain antenna structures with the Commission as required under Section 17.4 of the Rules and did not complete the environmental and/or historic preservation review process set forth in Section 1.1307(a) of the Rules.
Mobilitie and Sprint have to put stricter compliance processes into place so they don’t offend again. The practical effect will be less than you might think, though, because the FCC changed the environmental and historic review rules for some kinds of wireless facilities last month. So it’s possible that the at least some of the activities that got Sprint and Mobilitie into trouble in the past are now legal.
In its push to upgrade Sprint’s mobile network, Mobilitie has also alienated local governments by disingenuously claiming that 120-foot steel poles are “utility poles” rather than the cell towers they actually are, and by operating under a confusing array of corporate aliases. Companies, such as Mobilitie, that are certified as “telephone corporations” by the California Public Utilities Commission are allowed to install utility poles in the public right of way at no cost and with minimal local oversight. On the other hand, cell towers can be, and usually are, more tightly regulated by cities and counties. At least until the FCC decides to rewrite those rules, too.
There’s more time to chime in on whether the Federal Communications Commission should consider further preemption of local authority over cell sites and other wireless facilities. Last month, the FCC moved forward on a request to do so made by Mobilitie, a wireless infrastructure company that has pushed the boundaries of ethics, if not legality, and the English language in its aggressive pursuit of permission to, among other things, plant towers in public right of ways.
A group that includes the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors asked for a couple of extra months to respond, and the FCC split the difference and granted a one month extension, to 7 March 2017 for the first round of comments.
So far, there hasn’t been a rush to submit comments. Only about 20 filings have been posted, and one of those is from a local government. Pokomoke City, a small community in Maryland, told a story that’ll be familiar to pretty much any agency that’s dealt with Mobilitie’s campaign to install 70,000 new U.S. cell sites for Sprint…
Their initial requests were to locate new pole structures in the middle of our narrow public sidewalks – something we no longer allow. Their next proposal was to apply for a pole location on what appeared to be private property, expecting our small town, 4200, to provide title verification. The third was, after reporting to us that a specific location and height was vital, to then report they had selected a different location and changed height again. Their specs are a constantly moving target, and they wish to bank their infrastructure on the back of the town, rather than pay their way as all of the others do.
Lobbying groups for mobile carriers and wireless Internet service providers submitted preliminary amen comments; the rest appear to come from interested individuals.
Honorable mayor and members of the city council…
A bright – or at least brighter – line is likely to be drawn around the discretion local government have to grant permission, or not, to install small cell sites. At the urging of Mobilitie, an aggressive and disingenuous mobile infrastructure company, the Federal Communications Commission is taking a harder look at local and state restrictions on wireless facilities. It’s asking for public comments on whether it should invoke its status as an “expert agency” to cut through conflicting federal court rulings and issue a single set of rules that determine and preempt local government permit review processes regarding wireless sites….
We recognize…that localities play an important role in preserving local interests such as aesthetics and safety. At the same time, the Commission has a statutory mandate to facilitate the deployment of network facilities needed to deliver more robust wireless services to consumers throughout the United States. It is our responsibility to ensure that this deployment of network facilities does not become subject to delay caused by unnecessarily time-consuming and costly siting review processes that may be in conflict with the Communications Act.
The FCC’s notice (click here) correctly points out that 1. small cell deployments can result in periodic floods of permit requests, 2. current procedures in many jurisdictions are designed to accommodate occasional applications for large cellular sites, and 3. small cell sites are frequently simpler, less intrusive and more homogenous than big ones.
Cities and counties need to adapt to this changing environment, but it’s a fair question whether the FCC, which knows a lot of about telecommunications but not so much about land use and right-of-way management, is the right expert for the job. Nevertheless, the FCC seems intent on taking it on. Mobilitie is the trigger, but both the republican and democrat barrels were well loaded ahead of time. Outgoing chair Tom Wheeler promised this review earlier this year, and his republican colleagues – one of which will take up the chairman’s gavel, at least for a time, in the coming administration – have chimed in with a hearty, bipartisan amen.
The first round of comments are due at the FCC on 6 February 2017.
Hey guys, cities aren’t dumb.
Mobilitie’s attempt to skate past local permit requirements in its nationwide effort to install 70,000 new wireless sites for Sprint appears to be coming up short. The strategy appears to be to file a truckload of applications for 120-foot cellular towers but label them as utility poles and hope no one notices. As far as I can tell, 120 feet is just the maximum size they’re contemplating, so that’s what they apply to build. As I understand it, Mobilitie will chop it down as far as necessary in order to meet height restrictions and other local requirements.
It’s basic message to local jurisdictions has been we have authority from someone else, so get out of the way. That didn’t go over well in Mississippi according to a story by Henry Bailey in the the DeSoto Times-Tribune (h/t to Omar Masry at the City and County of San Francisco for the pointer)…
“I just don’t think it’s worth the paper it’s written on,” said Supervisor Lee Caldwell of Nesbit of what Mobilitie network real estate specialist Brett Smith described as a “certificate of need” from the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Caldwell and other board members noted that the PSC doesn’t have statutory authority to regulate wireless communications.
Smith said the PSC action was sought so Mobilitie could proceed with the rights and entitlements of a “public utility,” but Caldwell said of that, “You call yourself a ‘public utility,’ but you’re really just an antenna company” that sells space to cellular service providers. She added, “I don’t think you have a legal right to come here.”
In California, local planners and engineers are figuring out that calling a 120-foot tower a utility pole doesn’t necessarily make it a utility pole. Somebody at Mobilitie has to eventually realise that people working in local governments talk to each other.
Click for the big, ugly picture.
Mobilitie, a mobile telecoms infrastructure company, was hired by Sprint to install 70,000 new wireless sites as it tries to revamp its network and business. Fair enough. But then Mobilitie got cute when it started filing the necessary permit applications.
First, it adopted legal aliases – California Utility Pole Authority and California Transmission Network, LLC, for example – that have a vaguely official ring to them, and seem confusingly similar to the names of legitimate joint utility pole authority groups and electricity transmission organisations.
Then, it tried labelling its planned 120-foot towers as “utility poles” and began applying for permits to install them, for free, in public right of ways rather than renting space on private or public property, as cell tower companies are supposed to do. That didn’t go over well in Yolo County (h/t to @OmarMasry for the pointer)…
Yolo County recently denied an encroachment permit application from a telecommunications group that proposed to install eight, 120-foot tall, communications towers within County road rights-of-way…Though their application stated that the group wanted to install 120-foot tall “utility poles,” these types of installations are considered communications towers, and would be subject to a use permit(s) in Yolo County. Four and one half foot diameter towers (at their base) were proposed by this group to be squeezed within narrow County road rights-of-way. These locations apparently would provide optimal service to potential customers, and of additional benefit to the group, would not require property or right-of-way acquisition.
Mobilitie got similar push back in Indiana and Florida. As well it should. Mobile broadband service might be a public utility, but that doesn’t mean any stick it plants in the ground is a “utility pole”. Calling a monopole tower by a different name changes nothing, unless the people reviewing the permit applications aren’t paying attention to the details.