CTIA's Baker pushes FCC to streamline cell site deployments

CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker wants the FCC to take further steps to reform the wireless cell siting process to speed up the deployment of network infrastructure.

In an op-ed in newspaper The Hill, Baker wrote that "a commonsense national approach to further streamline and modernize the wireless siting process is long overdue" and has bipartisan support. She noted that small cells and Distributed Antenna Systems are becoming integral to network topologies and deployments, but that they are still treated like 250-foot cell towers by many municipalities.

Wireless carriers, tower companies and infrastructure providers have long complained of delays in the permitting and zoning process, including for equipment that is collocated with an already-approved cell site or with replacing equipment on a site that has already been zoned and approved.

The CTIA chief, herself a former FCC commissioner, wants the FCC to "limit the ability of state and local authorities to delay the collocation and replacement of wireless infrastructure that have minimal impact on communities."

Baker also wrote that the FCC should "curtail unnecessary delays at the local level by imposing a 45-day limit on collocation approvals. After all, as Congress recognized, these wireless facilities already have received the necessary zoning approval, so why impose further impediments?"

In terms of DAS and small cells, she wrote that their small size and flexibility "warrant streamlining the environmental and historic review processes--including the adoption of certain exclusions--for deployment of these facilities."

Baker also wrote that the FCC should allow "the speedy deployment of temporary towers used to respond to local emergencies and newsworthy events and to assist local law enforcement."

"Quick and decisive FCC action on infrastructure reform this fall can directly translate to shovel-ready jobs and capital outlays," Baker added. "And, for consumers, it means an even more robust and powerful mobile broadband experience."

Notably, many of Baker's recommendations were pointed out in May in a speech by Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai to the PCIA wireless infrastructure conference. In that speech, Pai noted that Congress has specifically required that state and local governments act on all requests to construct or modify wireless facilities "within a reasonable period of time." However, he noted that often local governments call for "an indefinite timeout until it can decide how to address issues raised by the application" after people in the local community complain. He said he wants the FCC to make clear that such delays are contrary to the law and "make it clear that a moratorium is not a loophole that localities can sneak through to avoid" the law.

Pai also said the FCC should "modernize our rules and exempt DAS from our environmental processing requirements, except for those involving RF emissions."

The FCC has taken steps in recent years to streamline the deployment of infrastructure. In 2009 the FCC adopted its "shot clock" rules that give municipalities 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, carriers and others that want to put up the infrastructure must still take the issue into court.

Pai said in May that the shot clock should also apply to DAS systems and that the "FCC needs to bring down the gavel if a local government does not act on a wireless facilities application by the end of our shot clock deadlines." He wants the FCC to deem an application granted if a local government doesn't act on it by the end of the shot clock. "This would maximize the incentive for local governments to rule on applications," he said. "And it would let companies stop litigating over infrastructure and start deploying it."

In January 2013, the FCC also took further steps to speed up infrastructure deployment by clarifying definitions in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which was enacted last February. A section of that law 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. However, arguments over the definitions of what a base station is and what it meant to "substantially change" a cell site had hung up deployments, forcing the FCC's hand.

For more:
- see this The Hill article

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