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FCC takes multiple actions to speed up tower deployments

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The FCC announced a number of moves designed to encourage deployment of mobile broadband infrastructure by removing certain local zoning barriers and creating more certainty for mobile operators.

The new actions, part of the FCC's Broadband Acceleration Initiative, are designed to boost deployments of towers, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and small cells. The commission said its moves will not only accelerate deployment and delivery of high-speed mobile broadband to communities across the nation but will also "create greater certainty and predictability for providers that today invest more than $25 billion per year in mobile infrastructure, one of the largest U.S. sectors for private investment."

Among other things, the FCC issued an order defining and clarifying Section 6409(a) of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which was enacted last February. Section 6409(a) prohibits state and local governments from denying any eligible facilities' request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station. Mobile operators have cited the law's passage as enabling them to move ahead quickly with network modernization projects, such as LTE deployments.

However, municipalities and operators have sometimes gotten stuck in debates regarding the definitions of "tower" and "base station" as described in the law. That is one point being tackled by the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, which said it has received informal inquiries from service providers, facilities owners, and state and local governments seeking guidance.

The FCC's definition states that a base station supports or houses an antenna, transceiver, or other associated equipment in any technological configuration, and including DAS and small cells. It added that the commission believes the scope of a wireless tower or base station under Section 6409(a) is not intended to be limited to facilities that support just "personal wireless services."

The commission also provided its take on what it means to "substantially change the physical dimensions" of a tower or base station.

"We could not be more pleased with the FCC's efforts to promote wireless broadband deployment. This common-sense application and interpretation of FCC rules is an enormous step forward for those of us who care about meeting consumers' insatiable demand for wireless data. It will spur badly needed investment, creating jobs while expanding broadband capacity," said Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of infrastructure trade group PCIA.

Adelstein applauded the FCC for including DAS and small cells in the definition of the term base station. He added PCIA is pleased the FCC clarified that Section 6409(a) "does not preclude state and local jurisdictions' compliance with the 'shot clock,' which regulates the time frames in which those jurisdictions must take action on wireless facilities siting and collocation applications."

The FCC said in coming months it intends to examine whether current application of the tower siting shot clock offers sufficient clarity to industry and municipalities. In November 2009, the commission voted to give states and localities a so-called "shot clock" for tower siting applications. The rules specify a deadline of 90 days to process applications for co-located facilities, where two or more providers share the tower, and 150 days for new towers. However, if the applications are not approved, operators must still take the issue into court.

Just last week, on Jan. 16, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in City of Arlington v. Federal Communications Commission, a case that seeks to determine whether the FCC had jurisdiction to set the shot clock. A decision in the case is expected later this year.

In addition, the FCC is addressing a growing trend in which municipalities across the country are crafting their own individual tower ordinances, creating considerable confusion for mobile operators. In coming months, the FCC will issue model rules for broadband and wireless facility siting for state and local governments to follow.

"These off-the-rack model ordinances should help harmonize President Obama's Executive Order 13616 for facility siting on federal land and property, wireless facility policies in Section 6409(a) of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, and the commission's existing shot clock rules for tower siting. By streamlining this process with model rules we can provide a way forward for state and local governments looking to oversee deployments within their borders. But more than that, we can make progress by promoting a more predictable set of laws all across the country," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Further, the FCC launched a proceeding to expedite placement of temporary cell towers--cells on wheels (COWs) and cells on light trucks (COLTs)--which are often used to expand capacity during special events, such as the Super Bowl, which draws tens of thousands of mobile users to a particular area for a short period.

The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is seeking comments on the proceeding, launched in response to a Dec. 21, 2012, petition from CTIA, which stated that the although the commission has provided for waivers of notice in emergency situations, many non-emergency situations arise in which carriers need temporary towers to address short-term capacity constraints but have insufficient advance notice to complete the public notice process. Comments on CTIA's petition, are due Feb. 25, with replies due March 12.

"CTIA welcomes today's actions that set in motion key initiatives to streamline and expedite wireless infrastructure siting," said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, CTIA vice president of regulatory affairs. He added the efforts should "bring additional clarity, certainty and hopefully alacrity to the siting process."

"Providing more certainty to industry and municipalities, and more flexibility to carriers to meet extraordinary, short-term service needs will accelerate private and public investment to strengthen our nation's communications networks," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

For more:
- see this FCC release
- see this FCC public notice (PDF) and this public notice (PDF)
- see this CTIA release
- see this PCIA release
- see this New York Times article (sub. req.)

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