U.S. supreme court avoids ruling on limits of federal authority over state and local broadband rules, for now

20 January 2015 by Steve Blum
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When your name is Roswell, reality can be subjective.

The U.S. supreme court declined to wade any deeper into the question of how much leeway local governments have to block installation of cellular towers and equipment. In a decision last week regarding a dispute between T-Mobile and Roswell, Georgia, the court ruled very narrowly in T-Mobile’s favor, saying the city didn’t give its reasons for denying a tower permit soon enough.

Federal telecoms law requires local agencies to give a reason when a tower permit application is rejected, in order to provide a basis for the courts to review the decision if there’s an appeal. In writing for the majority, justice Sonia Sotomayor said there’s only one standard those reasons need to meet…

In short, the statutory text and structure, and the concepts that Congress imported into the statutory framework, all point clearly toward the conclusion that localities must provide reasons when they deny cell phone tower siting applications. We stress, however, that these reasons need not be elaborate or even sophisticated, but rather, as discussed below, simply clear enough to enable judicial review.

The merits of cases like T-Mobile versus Roswell were left to lower courts to decide. Pointedly, justice Samuel Alito said in a concurring statement that big questions about federal oversight of local and state telecom-related decisions are still hanging…

Nothing we say today should be read to suggest that when a locality has erred, the inevitable remedy is that a tower must be built. The Court has not passed on what remedial powers a “court of competent jurisdiction” may exercise. This unanswered question is important given the federalism implications of this statute.

Those federal implications will loom even larger if the FCC decides to preempt state restrictions on municipal broadband projects, as urged by president Obama.