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Sens. Want To Limit Time For Cities' Small Cell Reviews

Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced a bill Thursday aimed at speeding the approval of so-called small cells that are essential to deploying 5G, by giving local governments no more than 90 days to act on applications to install the “backpack-sized” units. Telecommunications companies contend old rules governing wireless infrastructure siting are too costly and time-consuming, having been designed with massive towers in mind rather than the hundreds of thousands of small cells that carriers want to install to roll out 5G across the country. “Most rules on the books governing siting were designed for traditional 200-foot macro towers, but next-generation 5G wireless networks will require the use of small antennas called ‘small cells,’” the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which Thune chairs, said in a statement announcing the new legislation. “This equipment can often be installed on existing infrastructure like utility poles, light posts, or buildings, but it can take more than a year to get the necessary approvals under the current rules and can involve excessive fees that far outpace the cost of actual and direct costs to communities, which can hinder deployment.” The Federal Communications Commission has already sought to help by exempting small-cell fixtures from environmental and historic preservation reviews, a move challenged in court by Native American tribes and environmentalists. Wading in on the side of expediency Thursday were Thune and Schatz, the senior Democrat on the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee for Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet. Their bill, according to the Commerce Committee announcement, would require states, cities and towns to approve or reject small cell permits on “publicly available criteria that are reasonable, objective, and non-discriminatory,” while giving municipalities no more than 60 days to deny or act on applications to “collocate” small cells with existing equipment, and 90 days for other siting requests. Failure to meet those deadlines, according to the bill, means the application “shall be deemed granted” 31 days after the municipality receives a notice of failure from the applicant. Municipalities of under 50,000 residents would be given additional time. Anyone “adversely affected by any final action or failure to act” would be able to file suit in any court, within 30 days, and challenges could also be brought to the FCC. “New mobile technologies coming online will soon open doors to next-generation mobile broadband technology, but only in areas that have the needed infrastructure,” Thune said in a statement. “Many policies that made sense for the deployment of large and intrusive infrastructure are unduly burdensome when applied to the much smaller equipment now coming online.” Thune and Schatz’s proposed solution is S. 3157, referred to as the Streamlining the Rapid Evolution and Modernization of Leading-edge Infrastructure Necessary to Enhance Small Cell Deployment Act, or STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act. The bill, Thune said, will cut down on deployment barriers “while reaffirming the rights of states and localities to make decisions based on transparent, objective, and reasonable criteria.” According to the committee, the bill would also empower the FCC to issue requesting states and local governments one-time 30-day extensions for the otherwise obligatory time frames. The bill, the committee said, would also require that local governments publicly disclose their fees, and those fees must be “competitively neutral, technology neutral, nondiscriminatory and based on actual and direct costs” like inspections and maintenance. Additionally, it would specifically permit local small cell regulation for structural engineering standards, safety needs, or “aesthetic of concealment requirements.” Industry groups welcomed the legislation, including wireless communications organization CTIA. Its president and CEO, Meredith Attwell Baker, said in a statement that the bill “will help America win the global 5G race by accelerating deployment of next-generation wireless infrastructure while preserving local authority.” The bill’s introduction comes amid a wider debate over small cell siting that carriers have been navigating one municipality at a time. The most recent example comes from San Jose, California, where AT&T, Verizon and others have struck deals held up June 27 by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as a model to resolving conflicts between carriers' need for access to utility poles, and local governments' demand to control the terms of telecom attachments. Verizon cautioned the next day, however, that individual deals don’t obviate the need for infrastructure siting reform as carriers look to the hundreds of thousands of small cells nationwide that a functioning 5G network will require. “While Verizon is pleased to have reached a path forward with San Jose and a few other cities, the process for getting there was not quick or easy — for Verizon or for the cities — and confirms that reform is still essential,” Will Johnson, the company’s senior vice president for federal regulatory and legal affairs, said in a blog post.

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