Photo of Thomas B. Magee

The FCC last week released a DRAFT order, scheduled for a vote at its September 26 meeting, designed to dictate the process and fees that state and local governments must apply to small cell wireless antenna installations on government-owned poles and similar facilities, and on newly-constructed poles the wireless carriers want to install in state and local rights-of-way.  As currently drafted, the DRAFT order would establish shot clocks for small wireless facility review, and would declare that all fees must be cost-based.

Although 20 states have already enacted small cell legislation, some states have rejected small cell legislation, and numerous municipalities already have reached agreements with wireless carriers on the process and fees for wireless attachments and new pole installations, the FCC’s DRAFT order appears designed to override such legislation and agreements to the extent they fail to comport with the DRAFT order’s standards.

The DRAFT order would establish the following “shot clocks” for state and local review of small wireless facility applications:  60 days for collocation on preexisting structures, and 90 days for new builds.

The fees the DRAFT order addresses fees for access to public rights-of-way (ROW), and for attachments to government-owned property in the ROW, “such as light poles, traffic lights, utility poles, and other similar property.”  The DRAFT order would conclude that such fees violate the federal Communications Act’s prohibition on excessive state and local regulation unless:  “(1) the fees are a reasonable approximation of the state or local government’s costs, (2) only objectively reasonable costs are factored into those fees, and (3) the fees are no higher than the fees charged to similarly-situated competitors in similar situations.”

The DRAFT order would go even further, by specifying that the following fees presumptively would not violate the federal prohibition on excessive state and local regulation:  “(a) $500 for a single up-front application that includes up to five Small Wireless Facilities, with an additional $100 for each Small Wireless Facility beyond five, and (b) $270 per Small Wireless Facility per year for all recurring fees, including any possible ROW access fee or fee for attachment to municipally-owned structures in the ROW.”

Nowhere in the DRAFT order does the Commission explain how its proposed action establishing shot clocks and fees for municipally-owned “utility poles” and “light poles” comports with the federal Pole Attachment Act, which exempts municipally-owned poles from FCC pole attachment regulation.  In addition, the DRAFT order’s restrictive provisions will not appeal to state and local governments, whose enthusiasm for the 5G rollout appears to be diminishing with every new ruling.

For more information, please contact Tom Magee (magee@khlaw.com; 202.434.4128)

Photo of Michael Fitch

FCC Process Changes for Larger Wireless Facilities

Part 1 summarized the exemption of small wireless facilities from the FCC’s environmental review process under conditions specified in the new FCC rules adopted in March 2018. In its Second Report and Order, the FCC also took actions to streamline the review process for larger wireless facilities under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The FCC clarified its procedures for engaging Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiian Organizations (NHOs) in review of construction projects located off of Tribal lands. The FCC specified that applicants must provide all potentially affected Tribal Nations and NHOs with a Form 620 (for new towers) or a Form 621 (for collocations) packet where one of these forms is prepared. Forms 620 and 621 are required for review by State Historical Preservation Officers (SHPOs). If no SHPO review is required and thus there is no Form 620 or 621, applicants must provide Tribal Nations and NHOs “information adequate to fully explain the project and its locations.” At a minimum, that must include applicant contact information, coordinates, a description of the facility to be constructed including all of its elements, and a description of the proposed site including both aerial and site photographs. The FCC time lines for Tribal responses will not begin to run until a complete and accurate submission has been made by the applicant.

Regarding time lines, the FCC reduced the period in which Tribal Nations or NHOs must respond to notification if they have issues with proposed construction from up to 60 days to up to 45 days. If there has not been a response within that maximum of 45 days, the applicant’s pre-construction obligation to the non-responding entity is discharged. The 45 days includes time for an FCC follow-up notification in addition to the initial notification by the applicant.

The FCC clarified that applicants may choose to but are not required to pay fees requested by Tribal Nations or NHOs that have been invited to participate in this process. The FCC stated that some Tribal Nations and NHOs have been asking for an “up-front fee” before they will participate (i.e., respond). The FCC found that “up-front fees” are in the nature of a processing fee and applicants are not required to pay such fees. The FCC stated that if a Tribal Nation or NHO conditions its response on receipt of up-front compensation, the FCC will treat that as a failure to respond.

The FCC addressed situations in which Tribal Nations have requested payment for activities undertaken after initial determination that historic properties are likely to be located in a site vicinity. The FCC concluded that while an applicant may negotiate and contract with a Tribal Nation or NHO for services, “an applicant is not obliged to hire a Tribal Nation or accede to Tribal requests for fees in the absence of an agreement” and may seek other means of having needed work done. An applicant’s selection of a consultant is subject to the requirement that with respect to the identification and evaluation of historic properties, any assessment of effects shall be undertaken by a professional who meets the Secretary of the Interior’s Professional Qualification Standards.

The FCC specified a conflict resolution system to apply in individual cases of disagreement between an applicant and a Tribal Nation or NHO as to whether the applicant has met the reasonable and good faith standard in connection with the hiring of paid consultants.

The FCC adopted some reforms to its own processes as well. It modified a requirement for filing an Environmental Assessment (EA) for any proposed facility located in a floodplain. The FCC exempted from that requirement facilities that, including all associated equipment, will be constructed at least one foot above the base flood elevation, unless other criteria in the FCC rules trigger an EA.

The FCC also adopted time lines on its own processes when EAs are filed. The FCC puts EAs on public notice for 30 days to allow public input. It stated that most EAs are acted upon by its issuance of a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) about 15 days after the close of the public notice period. In the Second R&O, the FCC directed its staff to review EAs for completeness and adequacy to support a FONSI within 20 days of the date the EA is placed on public notice. If that review is positive, the FCC staff is instructed to advise the applicant that unless there is an informal complaint or petition to deny filed, a FONSI will be issued within 60 days of the date the EA was placed on public notice. If the staff review finds that additional information is required, the applicant will be notified within 30 days after the EA is placed on public notice. In that case, if a FONSI is warranted, it will be issued by the later of 60 days after the EA is placed on public notice or 30 days after the additional information is provided. If the additional information might affect the public’s ability to comment effectively, a new 60 day period may commence from the publication of the additional notice. Finally, if an informal complaint or petition to deny is filed against an application containing an EA, FCC staff is instructed to endeavor to try to resolve the matter within 90 days of the close of the pleading cycle.

These changes go into effect on July 2, 2018.

Photo of Michael Fitch

FCC Exempts Wireless Small Cells from Environmental Review Requirements

A high FCC priority is to streamline broadband deployment including the wireless infrastructure necessary to provide service to the public. One FCC proceeding directed to that objective was initiated in April 2017 with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), Notice of Inquiry (NOI), and Request for Comment (RFC) regarding Accelerating Wireless Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment.

The NPRM addressed Pole Attachments, Expediting Copper Retirement, and Streamlining the Section 214(a) Discontinuation of Service process. The NOI addressed possible prohibition of state and local laws inhibiting broadband deployment and pre-emption of state laws governing copper retirement. The RFC addressed common carrier discontinuation of service issues unrelated to wireless infrastructure and the environmental review process.

In November 2017 the FCC adopted a (first) Report and Order (R&O). It concluded that in specified circumstances “replacement of a pole that was constructed with a sole or primary purpose other than supporting communications antennas with a pole that will support such antennas would have no potential to affect historic properties.”  Accordingly, it excluded replacement utility poles from required review under Section 206 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) if specified conditions are met. Please see my December 5, 2017 blog entry “Is the Road to 5G Paved with Federal and State Pre-emptions of Local Authority?” for a summary of those conditions.

In March 2018, the FCC adopted a Second R&O. In it, the FCC excluded small wireless facilities from National Historic Preservation Act (NPHA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review under specified circumstances and also streamlined NHPA and NEPA review for larger wireless facilities. The FCC stated that these actions will make a real difference in promoting U.S. leadership in 5G and can cut the costs of deployment by 80%, trim months off deployment timelines, and incentivize thousands of new wireless deployments thus expanding the reach of 5G and other advanced wireless technologies in the U.S.

The FCC concluded that deployment of small wireless facilities by non-Federal entities do not require historic preservation review under NHPA nor environmental review under NEPA because such deployments are neither an “undertaking” (NHPA) nor a “major Federal action” (NEPA). The Second R&O noted that the FCC last considered whether some wireless facilities could be exempt from these requirements in 2004 when virtually all wireless sites were “macro” sites, but that new small cell sites are materially different in size and in their likelihood of impact on surrounding areas. The FCC concluded that conducting such reviews for small wireless sites would result in costs far exceeding benefits and that the burden would grow exponentially as ever-increasing numbers of small wireless facilities are deployed.

Here is the newly amended FCC rule that specifies the conditions for exclusion from NHPA and NEPA review for small wireless facilities:

Section 1.1312(e): Paragraphs (a) through (d) of this section shall not apply:

  1. to the construction of mobile stations; or
  2. where the deployment of facilities meets the following conditions:

(i)  The facilities are mounted on structures 50 feet or less in height including their antennas as defined in § 1.1320(d), or the facilities are mounted on structures no more than 10 percent taller than other adjacent structures, or the facilities do not extend existing structures on which they are located to a height of more than 50 feet or by more than 10 percent, whichever is greater;

(ii) Each antenna associated with the deployment, excluding the associated equipment (as defined in the definition of antenna in § 1.1320(d)), is no more than three cubic feet in volume;

(iii) All other wireless equipment associated with the structure, including the wireless equipment associated with the antenna and any pre-existing associated equipment on the structure, is no more than 28 cubic feet in volume;

(iv) The facilities do not require antenna structure registration under Part 17 of this chapter;

(v) The facilities are not located on Tribal lands, as defined under 36 CFR § 800.16(x); and

(vi) The facilities do not result in human exposure to radiofrequency radiation in excess of the applicable safety standards specified in § 1.1307(b).

These changes were adopted by the FCC on a 3-2 vote. The changes go into effect on July 2, 2018.

Part 2 will address the actions of the FCC to streamline its environmental review process for larger wireless facilities.

 

Photo of Michael Fitch

The FCC released a Public Notice on August 8 announcing an Amendment to the Nationwide Programmatic Agreement (NPA) for the Collocation of Wireless Antennas. The NPA Amendment was entered into by the FCC, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO). The original NPA was entered into in 2001 to address the collocation of wireless antennas and the obligations of the FCC and infrastructure installers under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). At that time, the issues related primarily to collocation on traditional “macro” towers.

The Amendment establishes a series of new exclusions from the FCC’s National Historic Preservation Act review process for Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and small cell facilities, recognizing the limited potential of these facilities to affect adversely historic sites and properties. The Pubic Notice details a series of new Stipulations to the NPA that will exclude these facilities from routine review if specific conditions are met for the wireless equipment. For example, the Amendment excludes collocation of small wireless antennas and associated equipment (i) on buildings and non-tower structures that are outside of historic districts or that are not historic properties, (ii) small or minimally visible wireless antennas and associated equipment in historic districts or on historic properties, and (iii) installed as replacements of small wireless antennas and associated equipment. The Amendment spells out “volume limits” that the equipment must meet to qualify for these exclusions.

This is the latest Commission action to facilitate deployment of much-needed additional wireless infrastructure to support the burgeoning demand for wireless broadband throughout the U.S. It follows Federal legislation in 2012 and significant actions by the FCC to implement that legislation.  In its major rulemaking on the subject adopted last year, the FCC noted the need for additional relief from NHPA reviews for small cell wireless infrastructure but expressed a preference for implementing these changes through the program alternative process.

In the Public Notice, the FCC noted the importance of small wireless infrastructure in enabling “5G” wireless service. 5G is still in its definitional stage, but it is characterized by much greater throughput and ubiquitous availability of service, which will require substantially more wireless infrastructure.

Kudos to all parties involved in easing the unnecessary regulation impeding new deployments of wireless infrastructure.