FCC waves a wireless weed whacker at local governments

27 December 2016 by Steve Blum
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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.