FCC Alters Small Cell Oversight, Tribal Review Process
The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday passed a sweeping proposal to lift federal requirements for reviewing wireless infrastructure projects.
The measure passed 3-2, with the commission’s Republican members voting in favor and its two Democratic commissioners dissenting.
“It’s a chance for the FCC to demonstrate our commitment to seeing the United States and American consumers win the race to 5G,” Commissioner Brendan Carr, who authored the proposal, said during the meeting.
The initiative, in particular, would remove federal oversight of small cellular installations under the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act. Proponents argued that eliminating the costs associated with those reviews would enable companies to install more of the smaller equipment needed for 5G networks.
“With today’s order, we can flip the business case for thousands of communities,” Carr said.
Opponents, however, said although the nation’s infrastructure rules needed to be updated, the measure fell short of meeting the agency’s statutory obligations and should have been delayed to address additional problems.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn argued that the NHPA and NEPA apply to every federal agency and that “winning the 5G race need not come at the expense of those important statutory goals.”
“Our nation’s infrastructure policies must be aligned with existing congressional mandates and the needs of local communities,” Clyburn said.
Another provision would alter the process for tribes to review wireless infrastructure projects — known as Section 106 reviews — and the related fees paid by operators.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly accused a small number of tribes of “acting in bad faith” to turn “tower and antenna siting into the latest cash cow.”
Numerous tribal governments condemned the proposal, but Carr argued that after years of dialogue with tribes, the measure would address only the current structure that allows for tribal reviews of projects not located on tribal lands.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, meanwhile, predicted the rules would trigger years of messy legal challenges.
“Not a single tribe has expressed support for today’s action,” Rosenworcel said.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the proposal — which also alters certain environmental assessment filings and the timeframe during which the FCC can address them — seeks to treat small cells differently than massive cell towers used to deploy 4G networks.
“You can stick with the regulatory status quo, or you can have 5G,” Pai said. “You cannot have both.”