Supreme court approves FCC "shot clock" limits on local review of wireless facilities

22 May 2013 by Steve Blum
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Cities have to shoot, but that doesn’t mean wireless companies will score.

Another barrier to construction of wireless broadband facilities has come down. Or, depending on your point of view, the federal government has pre-empted a bit more of local government’s ability to regulate what’s built or not in a community.

The U.S. supreme court has given its blessing to the FCC’s “shot clock” rule that put limits on the amount of time a local agency has to approve or deny an application to build a tower or put new equipment on or around an existing one. The 6 to 3 ruling focused on narrow and arcane legal issues, but the effect could be felt far beyond communications law. Essentially, the court is saying that when a federal agency makes specific rules to implement or enforce a somewhat vague law passed by congress, the assumption is that the agency knows what it’s doing.

The FCC’s shot clock rule says that local governments have to approve or deny an application to build a new wireless site within 5 months and a request to add equipment to existing facilities within 3 months. There’s still wiggle room. Applicants have to respond to requests for more information quickly and some issues – environmental regulations, for example – might take more time. If the clock runs out, it just means that the applicant can take the local agency to court. Wireless sites are not automatically approved.

However, other FCC rules say that local agencies must approve applications to add a certain amount of equipment to an existing tower or site. Combine that with the shot clock particularly and the court’s endorsement of the FCC’s authority generally and it’s looking like the pace of wireless broadband expansion will pick up.