FCC considers clearing a path through federal reviews for small cells

7 March 2018 by Steve Blum
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Update: the FCC approved the report and order, click here for it.
Small cell sites and similarly sized wireless facilities will be able to skip federal environmental and historic preservation reviews if, as expected, the Federal Communications Commission okays new rules at its meeting later this month. As drafted, the FCC report and order would exempt “small wireless facilities” from studies and paperwork required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. Those requirements were established many years ago, when the assumption was that a cell site was a big tower with lots of big antennas – what’s called a macro cell site today.
The FCC’s definition of a small wireless facility is specific – and generous – in some respects, but vague in others. Poles could be at least 50 feet, but if taller then no more than 10% higher than existing structures. Any single antenna could be no more than three cubic feet – suitcase size – but there’s no limit on the number of antennas. Nor on the amount of other equipment that can be installed, except that it can be “no larger than necessary for the operation of the small wireless facility”.
Facilities that fall within these specs would only be exempt from federal environmental and historical reviews – the FCC carefully notes that “small wireless facilities deployments would continue to be subject to currently applicable state and local government approval requirements”. That includes the California Environmental Quality Act as well as city and county permitting criteria.
That’s just for now, though. The FCC is listening to mobile carriers and big telcos and cable companies, which dominate its broadband deployment advisory committee. They’re meeting again next month, and could finalise recommendations for preempting state and local reviews, as well as a de facto ban on municipal broadband systems. The FCC isn’t obligated to accept those recommendations, but at least one member of the commission’s republican majority – Michael O’Rielly – is positively giddy at the prospect.
Eliminating unnecessary reviews is an excellent idea, and the FCC’s draft does a good job of injecting some common sense into federal regulations. Which is what the FCC is supposed to do. State and local governments have their own jobs to do, too. The FCC should leave them to it.