Congressional leaders accuse FCC of collusion in small cell ruling

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai
The FCC has been accused of colluding with telecom companies in a bid to win court approval for its small cell ruling. (FCC)

The heads of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology have sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (PDF) accusing the agency of colluding with telecom companies to win court approval for a ruling that limits fees and approval processes for small cell deployments.

When the FCC approved the rule change in September 2018, it was positioned as a necessary step to meet the needs of 5G and speed up the deployment of small cells and other telecom equipment. Regulators limited the fees that cities and states can charge for small cell installations and set reduced timelines for the approval process.

Cities must now act on applications within 60-90 days and can only charge a $100 application fee and an annual $270 fee per small cell. The move drew criticism from local officials who believe the FCC overstepped its authority, and many continue to call for an appeal or outright reversal of the ruling.

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U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone and Mike Doyle are now requesting information about any communications the FCC and license holders had relating to the legal challenges surrounding the agency’s decision. “It has come to our attention that certain individuals at the FCC may have urged companies to challenge the order the commission adopted in order to game the judicial lottery procedure and intimated the agency would look unfavorably towards entities that were not helpful,” the congressional leaders wrote in the letter.

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“If true, it would be inappropriate for the FCC to leverage its power as a regulator to influence regulated companies to further its agenda in seeking a more friendly court. To date, four FCC licensees have petitioned the federal judiciary for review of the order in separate filings and separate circuits,” Pallone and Doyle wrote.

The pair are asking the FCC to identify any FCC staffer that had communications with an FCC licensee relating to the legal challenges, and to provide details about the communications, including all documents involved. Furthermore, Pallone and Doyle are asking if any person at the FCC urge an FCC licensee to challenge the order, and if any FCC staffer has threatened to take adverse action against any FCC licensee for not complying with the request.

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FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has strongly advocated for the rule change and reiterated his position during a speech earlier this month. “We need to update and modernize our rules,” he said. “The old rules that were in place the 3G and 4G deployments of the past are simply not up to speed when it comes to the massive new deployment of small cells and other next-generation infrastructure that we need to see to support 5G.”