Part 2 of our 4-part discussion of the FCC’s recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”)

“Acceleration of Broadband Deployment by Improving Wireless Facilities Siting Policies.”

As we noted in Part 1, the FCC is proposing new rules on wireless siting issues that may impact local government’s ability to regulate the placement of these facilities.

Part 1 discussed proposed new federal rules for the siting of DAS/Small Cell facilities, either as collocations or as new facilities.

Part 2:  Proposes rules for the siting of temporary towers, and is the section least affecting local government.

The NPRM proposes to permanently exempt “temporary” towers from the environmental review, historical review, and federal antenna structure registration requirements provided the structures meet certain requirements.

By way of background, most antenna structures require (in addition to the environmental review and historical review that we’ve talked about) registration with the FAA and FCC (Antenna Structure Registration,) to ensure that structures of certain heights are painted and illuminated to avoid creating a hazard to aviation.

“Temporary” towers become necessary when there are large crowds gathered for events, weather disaster areas or miscellaneous reasons. At the wireless industry’s prior request, the FCC had granted an interim waiver to exempt temporary facilities from environmental review if they are up for less than 60 days, require notification to the FAA, do not require lighting or painting, are less than 200 feet in height, and involve little or no excavation.   The NPRM proposes to make that interim waiver (and its standards) permanent.

The FCC asks if the standards are reasonable, in particular the 60-day limitation.  Many jurisdictions that address temporary structures use 60 days as a measuring stick, so the FCC’s proposal for 60 days appears to be reasonable and consistent with many local regulations.

The NPRM does ask what the FCC should do if the “temporary” facility ends up being needed more than 60 days – think about the facilities that had to be built after Hurricane Sandy in NJ last year, and the timeline for replacing the permanent infrastructure that was destroyed.  Should those “temporary” facilities then have to go through the environmental and historical review process?

Next up are the two sections of the NPRM that most affect local government – Part 3, which discusses implementing Section 6409(a) of the 2012 Middle Class Job Creation and Tax Relief Act (now found at 47 USC Section 1445(a)) relating to wireless applications that local government MUST approve, and Part 4, dealing with the FCC “shot clock” and what happens to wireless applications that aren’t addressed in the shot clock window.

Click here for the entire FCC Document

Part 1 of 4: FCC September 2013 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) Acceleration of Broadband Deployment by Improving Wireless Facilities Siting Policies

We’ve told you many times about the continued erosion of local regulatory control over wireless infrastructure.  Well, the FCC continues that process in its September 2013 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”).

The NPRM (which runs 86 pages) click here for link to entire document puts forth a number of proposals which will affect your ability as a locality to determine the placement, size, and composition of wireless infrastructure in your community.

You do have the opportunity to file comments to the FCC’s proposals (which would be due 60 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, a date which is unknown at the time of writing due to the federal shutdown) and Cityscape urges you to have your city or county attorney file comments regarding the proposals’ effects on local government.

The NPRM’s proposals cover a number of topics, in 4 general areas; we will tackle them one topic at a time to make it easier to digest, and easier for you to prepare comments to file with the FCC.

Part 1:

Expediting Deployment of DAS/Small Cells – The first part addresses a desire to make it easier to deploy DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems) and Small Cell (also called microcell) systems.  After describing how DAS/Small Cells work and suggesting that because of their smaller “footprint”, they are a more desirable infrastructure in historic districts (versus traditional cell sites), the FCC then asks whether the DAS/Small Cells should be subject to the same environmental/historic review as traditional infrastructure.

As some of you know, the construction of most new wireless infrastructure requires federal review under NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969) to determine if there is a significant environmental impact because of the proposed structure.

NEPA reviews fall into 3 categories:

  1. Significant impact (which require a big study)
  2. No significant impact (which require a streamlined study to come to that conclusion)
  3. Categorical exclusions (which are exempt from any review.)   Currently, collocations on existing towers or buildings are categorical exclusions from NEPA, except for historical preservation effects and RF exposure limits.

In addition to NEPA, new facilities have to contend with NHPA (the National Historic Preservation Act), which requires review of any facilities that may impact property included or eligible to be included in the National Register of Historic Places.  Collocations are generally excluded from NHPA review as a result of an agreement with the industry called the National Collocation Programmatic Agreement, unless the collocation results in a “substantial change” in the size of the infrastructure (remember that phrase for later).

The wireless industry has asked the FCC to categorically exclude collocations of DAS/Small Cells from any NEPA/NHPA federal review.

Verizon went even further than the industry as a whole, asking for exemptions not only for collocations on existing antenna towers and buildings but also to facilities mounted on structures such as utility poles, water tanks, light poles, and road signs, thus excluding them from environmental review except for historic preservation and RF emissions exposure compliance. Imagine a stop sign with a wireless antenna on top!

In response to industry requests, the FCC is proposing in the NPRM to redefine “categorically excluded” facilities to include collocations on an “existing building, antenna tower, or other structure” (the change is adding the phrase “or other structure.”)  The FCC wants comment on this idea, as well as whether it should cover not only the antenna equipment but also the ancillary “ground” equipment associated with wireless facilities.

In addition to the above proposal, the FCC is also considering adoption of a new categorical exclusion from the NEPA/NHPA rules for DAS/Small Cell systems (different from the existing collocation exception that they propose broadening above.)

If they do adopt a new categorical exclusion, the FCC is asking how it should be defined.  They recognize that some DAS systems may have equipment similar to traditional wireless infrastructure and that may be inconsistent with a categorical exclusion, and would prefer creating definitions based on objective facts such as size, weight and location rather than just a category called “DAS”.

One industry proposed definition of equipment that would be categorically excluded would be:

  1. Equipment Volume. An equipment enclosure shall be no larger than seventeen (17) cubic feet in volume.
  2. Antenna Volume. Each antenna associated with the installation shall be in an antenna enclosure of no more than three (3) cubic feet in volume. Each antenna that has exposed elements shall fit within an imaginary enclosure of no more than three (3) cubic feet.
  3. Infrastructure Volume. Associated electric meter, concealment, telecom demarcation box, ground-based enclosures, battery back-up power systems, grounding equipment, power transfer switch, and cut-off switch may be located outside the primary equipment enclosure(s) and are not included in the calculation of Equipment Volume.  Volume is a measure of the exterior displacement, not the interior volume of the enclosures.

Any equipment that is concealed from public view in or behind an otherwise approved structure or concealment, is not included in the volume calculations.

Notably, a lot of “stuff” is not included in the calculations for this proposed exclusion from environmental processing.

Thirdly, the FCC asks if DAS/Small Cells should be included in the exclusion currently available (under the National Programmatic Agreement referenced above) for wireless infrastructure that:

  1. Are located in or within 50 feet of a right-of-way designated for communications tower or above-ground utility transmission or distribution lines
  2. Do not constitute a substantial increase in size over existing structures in the right-of-way in the vicinity of the proposed construction
  3. Are not located within the boundaries of a historic property
  4. Have provided the required notices to tribal organizations under the National Programmatic Agreement.

The FCC then asks about the same issues in the context of historic preservation and whether DAS/Small Cells should be eligible for categorical exclusion from historical preservation review.  In particular, whether the attachment of these facilities to telephone poles/street lamps in historic corridors should be categorically excluded, where the telephone pole/street lamps may be part of what makes the corridor “historic” in nature.

DAS is an ascendant technology, and you are going to be seeing it more in your local community in the future.

We would suggest that comments to the FCC on this section of the NPRM should point out the effect of any infrastructure (DAS included) on historic districts, and the importance of properly defining any exclusion that the FCC is thinking of granting to DAS/Small Cells.  In particular, you want to make sure that DAS facilities deemed exempt are not just a single provider site, but rather can accommodate multiple providers, otherwise you could face the real possibility of a DAS site for Provider 1 on one telephone pole, a site for Provider 2 on the next pole, a site for Provider  3 on the next pole, and so on.

Coming Next – Part 2 – Temporary Tower Exemptions from Environmental Processing.

Perspectives on Wireless Infrastructure

Join us as we conduct a FREE webinar Wednesday, May 8th at 11am EST.  We will be discussing the legal considerations of federal legislation and how this effects your community.

Anthony Lepore, Director of Regulatory Affairs will discuss the requirements of Section 704 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, details of the FCC Shot Clock, explain Section 6409 in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, go over the FCC guidance and much more!

Susan Rabold, Project Planning Manager will discuss briefly what is a wireless master plan, how it can help you stay in compliance with federal laws while maintaining authority in your own community.

Go to http://www.CityScapeGov.com to register!

FCC Offers “Guidance” on Local Government Tower Siting Issues

Loyal readers may recall we previously wrote about new federal laws that affected local government’s authority over certain types of wireless siting applications.  In Section 6409 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, Congress said that local governments SHALL approve (and may not deny) applications for an “eligible facility” that seeks to modify an existing tower or other structure (in other words, a co-location application or one that involves the removal or replacement of existing equipment).  Congress limited this provision to applications that did not “substantially change” the physical dimensions of a tower or base station, but did not bother to define what it meant by “substantially change”.  We predicted that there would be some guidance on what was meant by “substantially change” and the first such guidance has now been released by the FCC.

The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau of the  FCC, in a Public Notice dated January 25, 2013 (“Public Notice”), has offered “interpretive guidance” regarding Section 6409.  While not a formal rulemaking proceeding or adjudication by the agency, the Public Notice at least sheds some light on the issues involved and how the FCC views them.

The Public Notice notes initially that while it has not received any formal petition to interpret Section 6409 nor is it aware of any court decisions interpreting Section 6409 yet, it has received numerous informal inquiries from the wireless industry and local governments on the interpretation of Section 6409 and wished to set forth its “guidance” regarding those provisions.

So what guidance did the FCC Offer?

1.  What does “substantially change” mean? According to the FCC, “substantially change” should be defined (as the wireless industry has previously suggested) by the FCC’s prior definition of that term in the context of the National Programmatic Agreement for the Collocation of Wireless Antennas (47 CFR §1, Appendix B), and which it further adopted in the 2009 Declaratory Ruling on the timeline for processing colocation applications (the “Shot Clock Ruling”).  (As an aside, the Shot Clock Ruling is currently before the US Supreme Court where two local governments are challenging the FCC’s ability to impose a timeline on their application and approval processes.  A decision on that issue will be issued by June).

So what is that definition?  “Substantially change” means any proposal that involves:

A) the mounting of the proposed antenna on the tower would increase the existing 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, except that the mounting of the proposed antenna may exceed the size limits set forth in this paragraph if necessary to avoid interference with existing antennas; or

B) the mounting of the proposed antenna would involve the installation of more than the standard number of new equipment cabinets for the technology involved, not to exceed four, or more than one new equipment shelter; or

C) the mounting of the proposed antenna would involve adding an appurtenance to the body of the tower that would protrude from the edge of the tower more than twenty feet, or more than the width of the tower structure at the level of the appurtenance, whichever is greater, except that the mounting of the proposed antenna may exceed the size limits set forth in this paragraph if necessary to shelter the antenna from inclement weather or to connect the antenna to the tower via cable; or

D) the mounting of the proposed antenna would involve excavation outside the current tower site, defined as the current boundaries of the leased or owned property surrounding the tower and any access or utility easements currently related to the site.

IF you have an application for a facility that does not exceed these standards, it is NOT a substantial change and you are obligated to approve that application under Section 6409.

2.  What is a “wireless tower or base station?”   Congress also didn’t bother to define this term, so the FCC has again turned to the National Programmatic Agreement and stated that it was, in its opinion:

“any structure built for the sole or primary purpose of supporting FCC-licensed antennas and their associated facilities.   The Commission has described a “base station” as             consisting of “radio transceivers, antennas, coaxial cable, a regular and backup power supply, and other associated electronics.” Section 6409(a) applies to the collocation,                 removal, or replacement of equipment on a wireless tower or base station. In this context, we believe it is reasonable to interpret a “base station” to include a structure that                     currently supports or houses an antenna, transceiver, or other associated equipment that constitutes part of a base station.   Moreover, given the absence of any limiting statutory         language, we believe a “base station” encompasses such equipment in any technological configuration, including distributed antenna systems and small cells.”

Note that this definition is an expansion of the language in the granddaddy of all wireless legislation, Section 704 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (47 USC §332(c)(7), which only covered “personal wireless services”.  The FCC interpreted Congress’ use of the phrase “wireless tower or base station” to mean more than just those types of facilities covered by “personal wireless services”.

3.  Can local government still require an application?  The FCC took the position that although qualifying applications under Section 6409 MUST be approved by local government, implicit in that “approval” is the requirement for an application to be submitted for such administrative approval.

4.  Is there a time limit on processing such application for approval?  The FCC noted that while Congress did not establish a time period, since applications under Section 6409 were by their nature colocations, the time periods specified in the 2009 FCC Declaratory Ruling (“Shot Clock”) should apply, and thus 90 days should be the maximum period for reviewing such applications prior to approval.  HOWEVER, note that in some states, state law prescribes a shorter period of time for review and adjudication of colocation applications, so you’ll need guidance from your legal staff on what  your applicable timeline may be.  ALSO note as mentioned above that the “Shot Clock Ruling” is under review by the Supreme Court so this particular guidance may be stayed depending on what happens at the Court.

5.  What’s it all mean?  The federal government (with the encouragement of the wireless industry) has in a number of proceedings evidenced a desire to further expand wireless infrastructure coverage across the United States to develop a wireless network that is commensurate with our wired network.  Legislation such as Section 6409 and agency interpretations of same are all part of that effort and all work to dilute your ability to locally regulate this particular type of infrastructure.  You can expect current and future applicants to point to Section 6409 and this “guidance” and claim there is no “substantial change” and thus demand approval of their applications.  However, unstated in the FCC’s “guidance” is how to deal with these applications, which “must” be approved, where there are serious safety and tower loading concerns.  If the colocation application raises a structural or stability issue, what is a local government to do when faced with a purportedly compulsory approval requirement?    This is likely the situation that will generate the first set of cases that go before a court for a decision.  We would hope that a court would favor a local jurisdiction’s decision on safety/structural concerns but it is unclear at this time what might happen.

While this FCC “guidance” is merely that and not an official rule-making or adjudication, we would suggest that any court looking at this issue in the future is likely going to defer to the FCC’s interpretations of these terms and issues in reaching a decision on a particular application that is being litigated.  Of course, we’re always here to help guide you through these issues and make sure you stay on the right side of the regulations.