U.S. supreme court considers limits on local barriers to broadband

28 August 2014 by Steve Blum
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Some Roswells understand advanced technology better than others.

The U.S. supreme court will decide whether or not to set practical limits on the ability of local governments to stall – sometimes indefinitely – cell towers and other mobile broadband infrastructure deployments. When the court reconvenes in October, it will be hearing a case brought by T-Mobile against the City of Roswell in Georgia, which denied permission to install a tower disguised as a pine tree.

The specific issue in the case is whether a local agency has to provide a written statement detailing why a particular wireless project was nixed, or can it just stamped denied on the application and leave it to others to figure out the reasons by reading through council minutes and memos. Different federal appeals courts have ruled differently, and the supreme court could pick one and leave it at that.

Or it could go beyond a simple technical ruling and address the larger issues of how rigorous local agencies must be when they reject permits for mobile facilities and how much wiggle room federal law gives them. As T-Mobile put it in its pitch to the court

The object and policy [of federal law]…is to prevent local governments from imposing undue “impediments [to] the installation of facilities for wireless communications, such as antenna towers"…Issuing a denial of an application with no reasoning whatsoever – and thereby making the required expedited judicial review more costly and burdensome, if not downright impossible – is just one such impediment.

Roswell’s response is actually a prime example of the sort of telecoms policy micromanagement that the federal government says is its domain alone. After presenting a mangled interpretation of Moore’s Law, Roswell argues that it should keep cell towers out of town because…

Telecommunication carriers have and are working to develop better, smaller and cheaper technology to be used to increase coverage and capacity in their networks…It is more than conceivable, particularly as the infrastructure for true 4G LTE telecommunication service is put in place, that in as little as another decade multi-story cellular towers will be dinosaurs.

Presumably, the Roswell city council is OK with waiting 10 or 20 years to find out if anyone can figure out how to deploy 4G technology without towers. And live without the improved service it and its supporting fiber infrastructure can provide. Good luck with that.

A ruling in Roswell’s favor would give a blank check to local nimbys and tin foil hats. Or, depending on how far it goes, it could drop barriers to a low and uniform level, allowing broadband companies to spend money on infrastructure, rather than lawyers.

The excellent SCOTUSblog has more info and updates here.