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Another 5G Infrastructure Win for the Wireless Industry

Date: Jun 16, 2020

The FCC has made another ruling that will expedite the wireless industry’s deployment of 5G infrastructure. In September 2018, the Commission released its order on “small cells” allowing for the proliferation of 5G transmitters on lights, poles, and other structures located in municipal rights-of-way (“ROWs”) across the country (for more on that, see our previous blog post). That order was appealed by dozens of local jurisdictions from coast-to-coast and remains on appeal in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Now prompted by petitions from the wireless industry, in a Declaratory Ruling the FCC’s seeks to “interpret and clarify” rules with respect to modifications of existing infrastructure. As part of the same document, the Commission included a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks to expand even further the infrastructure rights of wireless carriers at the expense of local authorities.        

Declaratory Ruling

Background
Intending to assist FirstNet in deploying its wireless public safety network, Congress enacted Section 6409(a) of the Spectrum Act. That provision provides that a “state or local government may not deny, and shall approve, 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.” In its 2014 Infrastructure Order the FCC adopted rules implementing Section 6409(a). Nevertheless, the interpretation of what constitutes a “substantial change” has resulted in continuing disputes between wireless carriers and local siting authorities. Issues have also arisen over the commencement and tolling of the 60-day period established by the Commission for section 6409(a) reviews of existing facilities conducted by local authorities. Both CTIA and WIA petitioned the Commission to resolve these issues in favor of the wireless industry. In response, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling rejecting procedural arguments by local authorities that the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) required a notice and comment rulemaking for what amounts to new rules. Below are some of the key issues addressed in the Commission’s Declaratory Ruling.

Commencement of Shot Clock
Current rules provide for a 60-day shot clock for local authorities to review requests to modify existing facilities and a “deemed granted” remedy for failing to act within the allowable review period, which can be tolled under certain circumstances. In its Declaratory Ruling, the Commission issued a series of clarifications designed to reduce the opportunity for a local authority to delay the start of the 60-day review period or otherwise toll the period.

The FCC clarified that the shot clock commences when: (1) the applicant takes the first procedural step required by a local jurisdiction’s 6409(a) review process and to the extent it is not done as part of the first step; and (2) submits written documentation showing that a proposed modification is an eligible facilities request under 6409(a). Documentation to start the shot clock could include, “a description of the proposed modification and an explanation of how the proposed modification is an eligible facilities request.”

The Commission specifically addressed a number of procedures that cannot be utilized to delay the commencement of or otherwise toll the 60-day review period for a 6409(a) review of existing facilities.

  • The triggering of the shot clock cannot be delayed by establishing a “first step” that is outside of the applicant’s control or not objectively verifiable. For example, if a first step is to meet with a municipal official, that step can be satisfied by making a written request for the meeting. According to the Commission, in this example the shot clock would be trigged by the written request and by providing the requisite documentation addressing the proposed modification.
  • The start of the shot clock cannot be delayed by defining the first step as a combination or a series of steps – such as requiring meetings or consultations with local officials or entities.
  • The shot clock may not be delayed by declining to accept an applicant’s submission intended to demonstrate it has met the criteria established by the Commission for starting the clock.
  • A local jurisdiction may not delay the start of the shot clock by requiring documentation that is not reasonably related to determining whether the proposed modification is an eligible facilities request.
  • Conditional authorizations are acceptable but will not delay the start of the shot clock.  

For those jurisdictions that do not have a specific review process for existing facilities under Section 6409(a), the Commission found that for purposes of triggering the shot clock, the applicant can consider the “first procedural step to be the submission of the type of filing that is typically required to initiate a standard zoning or siting review of a proposed deployment that it is not subject to section 6409(a).”

Height Increases for Towers Outside the Public Rights-of-Way

Adding equipment to an existing tower changes the tower’s physical dimension. The Commission found that if the “change is not ‘substantial’ then a request to implement it would qualify as an eligible facilities request and a locality would be required to approve it.” Under existing rules, a modification of a tower outside of a public ROW would cause a substantial change if it “increases the height of the tower by more than 10% or by the height of one additional antenna array with separation from the nearest existing antenna not to exceed twenty feet, whichever is greater.”

The Commission clarified that “the word ‘separation’ refers to the distance from the top of the existing antenna to the bottom of the proposed antenna.”  According to the FCC, interpreting ’separation’ to “include the height of the new antenna could limit the number of proposed height increases that would qualify for section 6409 (a) treatment given typical antenna sizes and separation distances between antennas.”  The Commission found that such an interpretation would undermine “the statute’s objective to facilitate streamlined review of modifications of existing wireless structures.”

This clarification only applies to towers outside the ROWs. A different height standard continues to apply to structures within the public rights of way and base stations outside the ROWs.

Equipment Cabinets
Wireless carriers often must add equipment cabinets to existing wireless sites as part of the 5G upgrade. Current rules provide that a proposed modification to a support structure constitutes a substantial change if “it involves installation of more than the standard number of new equipment cabinets for the technology involved, but not to exceed four cabinets.”  The Commission found that local jurisdictions are interpreting the phrase “equipment cabinet” too broadly in “treating the equipment itself as a cabinet simply because transmission equipment may have protective housing.” The Commission determined that “small pieces” of equipment, including remote radio units, radio transceivers, amplifiers and similar devices mounted on a structure, are not considered “equipment cabinets” under the rules “if they are not used as physical containers for smaller, distinct devices.” 

Finally, the Commission clarified that the maximum number of additional cabinets that can be added is based on each separate request and is not a cumulative number for the facility involved.

Concealment Elements
Under current rules a modification “substantially changes” the physical dimensions of an existing structure if it defeats “the concealment elements” of the structure. In its 2014 Infrastructure Order, the FCC noted that for concealed or “stealth-designed” facilities – facilities designed to look like some feature other than a wireless tower or base station – a change that defeats the concealment elements would be considered a “substantial change.”

The Declaratory Ruling clarified that concealment elements are those elements of a wireless facility installed for the purpose of making the facility appear as “something fundamentally different than a wireless facility.” The Commission rejected the interpretation advanced by numerous localities that any attribute that minimizes the visual impact of a facility – such as placement behind a tree line – should be considered a concealment element.

The Commission further clarified that to be treated as a concealment element in a modification application the element itself must have been part of the facility that the local jurisdiction previously approved. There is, however, no requirement that a concealment element must have been specifically articulated as a condition by the locality in a prior approval. While specific words are not necessary, “there must be express evidence in the record” to show that a locality considered in its approval a stealth design that a facility would look like “a pine tree, flag pole, or chimney.”

Finally, the FCC clarified that to “defeat concealment,” a proposed modification “must cause a reasonable person to view the structure’s intended stealth design as no longer effective after the modification.” If the modified structure would continue to appear as something other than a wireless facility – such as a pine tree – then the modification would not defeat concealment.

Conflicts in Siting Rules Resolved in Favor of Allowing Existing Facility Modifications

Interpreting Section 1.6100 (b)(7) of its rules, the Commission found that an aesthetics related condition permitted under section 1.6100 (b)(7)(vi) cannot be used to prevent a “non-substantial” change to an eligible existing structure otherwise allowed under sections 1.6100 (b)(7)(i-iv). When a conflict exists, the aesthetic condition otherwise allowed under (vi) should be enforced only to the extent that it does not prevent the modification to the existing structure.

Environmental Assessments
On its own motion, the Commission ruled that an environmental assessment will no longer be needed when the applicant and the FCC have entered into a memorandum of agreement (“MOA”) to mitigate effects of a proposed undertaking on historic properties where the only basis for the environmental assessment was the potential for significant effects on such properties. Going forward, an environmental assessment will not be necessary after an adverse effect on historic property is mitigated by such an MOA. However, “an environmental assessment is still required if the proposed project may significantly affect the environment in ways unrelated to historic properties.”

 

Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

In addition to the pro-industry decisions set forth in its Declaratory Ruling, the Commission is considering going even further to assist wireless carriers in deploying facilities to advance 5G and other telecommunications technologies. Current rules provide that a modification to an eligible support structure that requires excavation or deployment outside the current site is not eligible for streamlined review under Section 6409(a).

Prompted by a petition for rulemaking by WIA that asks the Commission to amend its rules so that a modification will not be a “substantial change” where it involves excavation or deployment at locations of up to 30 feet outside the boundaries of a macro tower compound the Commission is proposing amendments to its facility rules. Specifically, the definition of “site” would include “the boundary of the leased or owned property surrounding the tower and any access or utility easements currently related to the site” as of the last approval. In addition, “modification of an existing facility that entails ground excavation or deployment of up to 30 feet in any direction outside the facility’s site will be eligible for streamlined processing.”

The Commission has proposed an expedited timeline for filing comments and reply comments in response to this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Comments will be due 20 days after the document is published in the Federal Register and reply comments will be due ten after that.

 

Conclusion

These actions are the latest steps by the FCC to facilitate the deployment of wireless infrastructure to support the proliferation of 5G technology. With each Commission order the balance of power on siting decisions continues to shift toward the wireless industry and away from localities. Unless Congress and/or the courts intervene, the inevitable result will be that local governments will have less and less say about infrastructure that so directly impacts their communities.