FCC Passes Rules to Expedite Tower Upgrades, Reduce State and Local Delays
Tuesday, June 09, 2020 | Comments

In a 3-2 partisan vote, the FCC took action to overrule local and state governments that want authority to stop cell tower upgrades. The commission said in a statement the action will expedite equipment upgrades to deploy next-generation networks, which are critical to expanding economic opportunities and supporting public health and safety in American communities.

The new rules could see more local tower disputes decided by courts.

Congress enacted section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act of 2012 to streamline state and local government review of certain requests to modify wireless transmission equipment on existing structures, and the commission adopted rules to implement section 6409(a) in 2014. Under this framework, a state or local government shall approve any request for modification of an existing structure that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of that structure within 60 days.

The FCC’s declaratory ruling adopted June 9 clarifies the commission’s 2014 rules with regard to when the 60-day shot clock for local review begins. The ruling also clarifies how certain aspects of proposed modifications, height increases, equipment cabinet additions, and impact on concealment elements and aesthetic conditions, affect eligibility for streamlined review under section 6409(a).

In addition, the action clarifies that, under the FCC’s rules on environmental and historic preservation review, FCC applicants do not need to submit environmental assessments based only on potential impacts to historic properties when parties have entered into a memorandum of agreement to mitigate effects on those properties.

“These clarifications will accelerate the buildout of 5G infrastructure by avoiding misunderstandings and reducing the number of disputes between local governments and wireless infrastructure builders — disputes that lead to delays and lawsuits,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

The commission also adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that seeks comment on proposed rule changes regarding excavation or deployment outside the boundaries of an existing tower site and the effects of such activities on eligibility for streamlined review under section 6409(a).

Pai and Republican Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr approved the actions. FCC Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks dissented.

“Taken as a whole, rather than clarifying our policies and expediting approvals, the posture of this declaratory ruling is likely to lead to time-consuming and costly disputes about intent and reasonableness between local governments and industry, and furthermore, it is likely to lead to protracted litigation,” Starks said. “Moreover, because of the substantial burdens we place on local governments’ review of modifications to existing sites, those governments may even give greater scrutiny to initial siting requests, leading to additional frustration and delays.”

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