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On June 9, the FCC adopted a Declaratory Ruling clarifying and streamlining its regulations governing local and state review of certain applications to modify existing wireless towers and base stations, including small cell and macro cell sites. The FCC’s action will speed the deployment and reduce the costs of 5G and other wireless services, benefiting the economy and Americans in rural areas awaiting access to robust broadband.
The Declaratory Ruling reduces siting approval process delays and clarifies FCC rules for the upgrade of equipment to be co-located on existing towers. The ruling improves this process in several ways, including:
- Defining when the 60-day shot clock begins for local authorities to review applications that qualify for streamlined treatment
- Clarifying what constitutes a “substantial change” in the physical dimensions of wireless infrastructure under the FCC’s streamlined review rules
- Limiting local authorities’ ability to impose concealment or aesthetic conditions that prevent upgrades of concealed infrastructure
- Clarifying that an environmental impact assessment is not required when the FCC and the applicant have reached a Memorandum of Agreement regarding the impact of a tower site modification on a designated historic area.
The FCC also adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on what deployment activity, including excavations, outside of existing wireless tower site will qualify under the FCC’s streamlined local review rules.
The FCC’s actions are a much-needed improvement to the process of obtaining local and state approvals for modifications of existing sites and structures. At the same time, the decision upholds the authority of local governments to review and approve applications in a timely manner.
The FCC provided specific guidance on prevalent practices that may violate its streamlined review rules. For example, local authorities may not require siting applicants to meet first with local authorities or attend public input sessions prior to start of the 60-day clock. The FCC also explained that applications to attach smaller transmission equipment – e.g., remote radio heads/remote radio units, amplifiers, transceivers mounted behind antennas, and similar devices – fall within the streamlined treatment under the FCC’s rules. Further, a modification to place standard coaxial cable on the outside of a facility that is subject to a local concealment condition would also qualify for streamlined treatment.
The FCC, as well as the advocacy of WIA and CTIA, deserve praise for these actions.
By Mark O’Connor, Esq. Communications Law Counsel, PLLC