‘Twilight towers’ issue pits wireless industry against Native American, historical preservation groups

Cellular antennas on tower
Wireless players are arguing for easier ways to update and deploy cell towers and other network equipment. (Pixabay)

The FCC has opened a proceeding on the so-called Twilight Towers, an issue that is clearly split between the wireless industry and some Native American tribes and historical preservation groups.

And the situation is getting somewhat heated: “The presumption that Twilight Towers have no adverse effects on historic properties is false,” wrote the National Trust for Historic Preservation in a filing with the FCC on the issue.

Comments from Native American tribes from across the country strike a similar tone. “The very existence of Twilight Towers is a failure of the FCC to uphold its trust responsibility to Tribal Nations and is in violation of federal law,” wrote the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in a filing to the agency. “Now for the FCC to use the long years of neglect of sacred and cultural rights as a reason to exclude Twilight Towers from the rules, adds further injury.”

The FCC late last year said it would seek public comment on a plan to “exclude from routine historic preservation review the collocation of wireless communications equipment on certain towers known as Twilight Towers,” with the goal of making it easier for wireless carriers to update existing wireless network equipment and deploy new equipment on the towers. As the FCC noted, Twilight Towers were those constructed between March 16, 2001 and March 7, 2005, that either were built without undergoing the historic preservation review as required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, or lack documentation that such review was conducted.

“As a result, these towers are not eligible for collocations in the same way as towers that have documented Section 106 review and clearance or towers that were exempted under the pre-2001 standard,” the FCC noted.

The wireless industry estimates that there are roughly 4,000 twilight towers in the United States, and they could support an additional 6,500 antennas.

Not surprisingly, the wireless industry cheered the FCC’s action. In one of its filings on the matter, T-Mobile noted that access to the towers would allow the carrier to improve its network more quickly. “Collocating on Twilight Towers also could facilitate T-Mobile’s network expansion and enhancement efforts, as it works to expeditiously build out and upgrade its network to utilize the 600 MHz spectrum it acquired in the Broadcast Incentive Auction,” T-Mobile wrote. “Collocation on existing infrastructure can reduce deployment timelines and potentially enable T-Mobile to accelerate its deployment plans to reach new customers and bring competition to new parts of the country, particularly in rural areas.”

Others agreed. “This resolution of the ‘Twilight Tower’ issue is in the public interest because it will rapidly make available thousands of existing towers to support wireless broadband deployment without causing adverse impacts to historic properties, reduce the need for new towers, and remove the specter of enforcement action from current innocent owners of Twilight Towers,” AT&T argued in its own filing.

The current FCC has been clear in its intentions to smooth the way for wireless network operators to deploy and upgrade their network equipment. Such efforts often involve the installation of new antennas and small cellselements carriers say are necessary for them to improve their wireless services and remain competitive. However, wireless players argue that they sometimes face lengthy approval processes and exorbitant fees in their efforts to gain access to towers and other structures that can hold their equipment. For example, Sprint said it recently faced a $90,000 fee to review six antenna sites in Chicago.

Despite the concerns by historic preservation and Native American groups, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he believes the agency will make progress on the twilight towers issue by next year: “After many discussions with Tribal representatives, industry, and other interested stakeholders, it is now clear that it is up to the FCC, working with our colleagues at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), to finally solve this problem. And none too soon; the more rapidly we enable additional use of this infrastructure, the sooner consumers everywhere can benefit from next-generation wireless services. It is my hope that this issue will be wrapped up, at long last, by the middle of next year,” Pai wrote late last year.