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FCC Sides with Wireless Industry on Policy that Erodes Local Control, Lowers Standards for Deployment of Wireless Small Cell Equipment

October 1, 2018
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 4-0 on Sept. 26 to limit the authority and standards that states and local governments can require for the installation and/or deployment of small cell wireless facilities. 
In 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed SB 649, similar legislation, after the League and a large coalition of cities voiced serious concerns that the bill would harm local communities.
The FCC approved its declaratory ruling and report order, which will go into effect in 90 days and will:
  • Significantly shorten the period and likely overwhelm cities with thousands of complex small cell applications to process within 60 or 90 days;
  • Prohibit the ability for cities to impose fees for basic cost recovery for reviewing complex small cell applications to $100 per site;
  • Prohibit cities from imposing fair market rates for the private use of taxpayer funded public property at $270 for the installation of small cell wireless facilities; and
  • Lower standards for aesthetic review and undergrounding, historic, and environmental requirements to those that are “reasonable, comparable” requirements for other rights-of-way users, and published in advance.
SB 649
The wireless industry last year pursued similar failed legislation (SB 649) in California that sought to achieve many of the elements present in this order. The industry’s effort was met with overwhelming opposition from over 325 California cities concerned about shifting authority away from residents, businesses, and communities over to a for-profit industry whose shareholder returns potentially outweigh their considerations for the health, safety, aesthetic, and public benefits of communities.
Opposition to FCC Order
The League opposed the FCC order along with many national organizations.
In a joint letter, the National League of Cities (NLC), the National Association of Counties, the United State Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, and the National Association of Regional Councils all urged the FCC to reject the order. The letter stated that the order “undermines local governments ability to ensure fair and reasonable deployments, and fails to ensure any public benefits.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governor’s Association also opposed the order given the impacts to state governments and erosion of local control.
Cities throughout California and the nation share in the goal of ensuring that residents have access to affordable, reliable high-speed broadband and eagerly welcome installation of wireless infrastructure in collaboration with local governments. However, this order will not help in achieving these goals. Instead, this order will interfere with local governments’ management of their own property and their ability to receive fair compensation for its use. Local governments actively manage the rights of way to protect their residents’ safety, preserve the character of their communities, and maintain the availability of the rights of way for current and future uses.
FCC Commissioner Action
There is additional reason to be concerned with this action. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, in his prepared remarks, expressed his preference for further deregulation of the wireless industry and did not think this order went far enough. Mr. O’Rielly blamed local governments for imposing “exorbitant fees, ridiculous practices, and prolonged delays” and preferred to eliminate all environmental review. In addition, he stated that he believes that the FCC should also look at loosening standards for larger Macro-Towers.
Commissioner Brendan Carr, who led the FCC’s efforts, was also critical of local government’s role in the deployment of small cell wireless technology and claimed that the order would speed the deployment of 5G. In his prepared remarks, he claimed that this order would cut red tape by $2 billion nationally, allowing the industry to make additional investments. No such requirements, however, are placed on the wireless industry to reinvest those savings into rural or suburban community deployment of this infrastructure. Instead, the $2 billion in “savings” for the wireless industry simply prevents local communities from recovering the public’s cost for reviewing and permitting such infrastructure and from placing fair market value for private use of taxpayer assets.
Next Steps
For more information about the FCC’s actions, the NLC has highlighted the five key takeaways and next steps for cities, now that the Order is adopted. The League and its local government partners will continue to explore administrative, legal, and legislative steps to stop the Commission’s clear overreach.

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