Supreme Court to decide case on how cell tower permits can be denied

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide a case that turns on whether local municipalities must provide detailed explanations to wireless carriers when they deny applications to build new cell towers.

The high court will hear a case that arose after a T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) subsidiary was blocked from constructing a 108-foot tall cell tower in Roswell, Ga. T-Mobile said that various city council members voted to deny the tower application, but the carrier claims the city did not provide an official written explanation for the denial.

Later, a federal trial judge sided with T-Mobile and told the municipality to issue the permit, ruling that the city violated federal communications law that says government officials need to provide a denial "in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record."

However, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, overruled that and said that the city met the federal requirement by issuing a general denial letter and a transcript of hearings that led to the denial. Other appeals courts have issued differing rulings on what local governments must do to meet the "in writing" requirement.

The case, T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell, will be heard during the next Supreme Court term, which begins in October.

T-Mobile argued that a victory for the Georgia city "will seriously impede the prompt deployment of wireless services to consumers." Carriers need detailed explanations from cities so that they can more easily appeal decisions to block towers, the company said. The city replied in its own brief that if T-Mobile wins "it is the local governments who would be harmed, as they would be forced to allow cellular towers in the heart of their residential communities based upon a mere technicality."

PCIA President Jonathan Adelstein said in a statement that the wireless infrastructure trade group "commends this morning's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to address a circuit split that has created ongoing and undue delay and expense in the roll-out and upgrade of wireless broadband facilities. Our industry stands ready to meet consumers' skyrocketing demands and expectations for reliable mobile service, but too often we are faced with local requirements contrary to federal law that frustrate our ability to get critical wireless technologies deployed. PCIA fully supports its member company, T-Mobile, in this case and looks forward to a final resolution on this matter."

The case comes at a time that wireless carriers in the U.S. are finishing their macro buildouts of LTE networks. However, carriers are likely going to deploy more and more cell sites to add capacity and density to their networks. Further, in the years ahead, carriers will likely need more sites to accommodate new antennas and equipment for new spectrum bands they plan to put into service for LTE beyond their initial deployments.

For more:
- see this AP article
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article

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