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FCC passes order limiting cities’ review of 5G deployment

FCC passes order limiting cities’ review of 5G deployment

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai And FTC Chairman Joseph Simons Testify To Senate Appropriations Committee Hearing On Their Dept.’s Budget
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission will soon require cities to quickly approve or deny wireless carriers’ requests to deploy 5G cell installations. While the goal of rapidly deploying 5G is widely shared, the FCC’s approach here has come under criticism, particularly from cities. The measure constrains the time cities have to review deployment requests, while also limiting them from taking into account issues like whether the installation will take place at a historical landmark.

The new rules passed with support from all four FCC commissioner’s today, with the agency’s sole Democrat, Jessica Rosenworcel, also dissenting in part. Rosenworcel said the requirements would “run roughshod over state and local authority” and “[tell] state and local leaders all across the country what they can and cannot do in their own backyards.”

5G deployments are small, so the FCC isn’t as worried about how they’ll impact communities

Once the order goes into effect, local governments will be required to approve or deny deployment of small wireless facilities within 90 days, or just 60 days if they’re being added onto an existing facility. If they don’t give an answer within that timeframe, the FCC says that wireless companies will have grounds to sue.

The FCC doesn’t think assessing deployment of these facilities should be a big deal, since 5G installations are expected to be fairly small. In the order, the FCC references a comment describing the 5G wireless units as being able to “fit into a pizza box.” That’s because 5G will work across a much shorter range than previous wireless technologies — so wireless carriers will need smaller units, but it’ll need to place a lot more of them.

That means there’ll need to be a lot of deployments, which offers some reason for why it’s important to have a quick process for getting them approved. But the process also applies to new structures that may be needed to hold the units in some cases, and those could be larger.

And cities are worried. The order removes many of the tools they use to preserve the character and health of their neighborhoods. The FCC excludes these small cell cites from being reviewed for environmental impacts and impacts on the historical character of an area. It also limits review on tribal lands. The order prevents cities from charging any fees to file deployment applications beyond what it actually costs to review them as well.

Major cities including Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles wrote to the commission with concerns. Philadelphia wrote that maintaining control over deployments is “essential in order to effectively protect the health, safety and welfare of the city’s over 1.5 million residents and 43 million annual visitors.”

Even Rosenworcel is in favor of the shortened review times for 5G deployment. But she’s opposed to the restrictions that the commission places on how cities can review these applications, including around how the installations can look.

In addition to speeding up 5G deployment, the FCC sees this as a way to cut costs for wireless carriers. They claim it will save $2 billion in unnecessary costs, which they believe will lead to $2.5 billion in additional buildout, potentially helping with rural deployment. But there’s nothing in the order that requires that of wireless providers, so — as with many of its other orders in recent years — the commission is making life easier for wireless providers and hoping that’ll translate to more investment in necessary projects.