FCC wants to allow cell sites to grow 30 feet in any direction, without meaningful local review

12 October 2020 by Steve Blum
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Marina cell sites 625

Local governments will have to automatically permit expansions of cell sites and other wireless facilities beyond currently approved boundaries, if the Federal Communications Commission approves a draft of new wireless facilities regulations. As it all but certainly will – the changes to existing wireless permitting rules are part of a bundle of significant changes to telecommunications policy that the republican-majority FCC has queued up for a vote just ahead of the November election.

As the rules stand now, local governments “may not deny, and shall approve” within 60 days modifications to existing wireless sites that are outside of the public right of way so long as the changes “do not substantially change the physical dimensions of the structure”. Missing the deadline means that the permit is “deemed granted”.

Going outside of existing site boundaries is considered to be a substantial change and local governments are allowed some discretion and longer review times to decide whether or not to issue permit for it.

No longer.

As the FCC wants to redefine it, construction or excavation that’s within 30 feet of an existing site’s boundary is not substantial – it’s “sufficiently modest”, as the draft puts it – and would likewise fall under the “may not deny, and shall approve” mandate, with a 60-day “deemed granted” shot clock.

The primary motivation for the change is the changing nature of wireless sites. More equipment is needed to support more co-located carriers and new technology, particularly 5G technology, the FCC’s draft says.

It’s the second time this year that the FCC has ratcheted down local authority over wireless permits on private property. California cities have already taken the FCC to court over it.

California law is also moving in the same direction. The California legislature approved and governor Gavin Newsom signed, a bill that allows back up generators to be installed within 100 feet of an existing macro tower or base station. Cities and counties effectively have no say over the matter and such construction is exempt from California environmental quality act (CEQA) review.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the draft at their 27 October 2020 meeting.