Will cell tower snafus decline as shot clock looms?

REPRINT:  January 12 2010 – 10:44 am ET | Matt Kapko | RCR Wireless News

Depending on your locale, they may be more hidden or disguised, but make no mistake – cellular towers continue to multiple at a heavy rate. Providing the equivalent of a lifeline by which the entire wireless industry flows to and from, cell towers remain as controversial as ever.

Whether it’s a perceived blight, unmitigated environmental impacts, radiation concerns or a general opposition from local zoning boards, cell tower developers often face a tall order before they can even dream of breaking ground.

It’s not the only bottleneck in the tower development cycle, but many delays can occur at the ground level, where approval is required from local zoning authorities. In rare and the most ridiculous cases, developers and carriers have been tangled up in bureaucratic red tape for five years or even longer.

The issue of tower siting came to a new head when CTIA filed a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission to impose a “shot clock” under which state and local zoning boards are required to vote up or down before a pre-determined deadline. Without fail, requesting an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 is sure to highlight the need to bring guidelines into the modern age of wireless.

When CTIA filed its petition more than a year ago, it counted no less than 3,300 applications pending at the time, and of those, 760 applications were more than one year old and 180 of those applications were more than three years old. CTIA, carriers and the untold number of tower developers that have run into resistance during the permitting process over the years got their wish, albeit with a more forgiving timeline and stipulations than CTIA wanted.

The FCC adopted a tower siting shot clock, as expected, but permit applications won’t simply be considered free and clear if a jurisdiction fails to meet the deadline, as CTIA had hoped.

The unanimous declaratory ruling from the FCC requires tower-siting decisions to be made within 90 days on tower collocation applications and 150 on all other tower-siting proposals.

The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors has been lobbying against the shot clock, claiming that imposing any deadline on the permit process would preempt local authority.

Jeffrey Silva, senior policy director of telecommunications, media and technology at Medley Global Advisors, tells RCR Wireless News it’s unclear if NATOA’s interpretation stands on solid legal ground, but adds that it’s also possible the matter could wind up in court.

“You know, it’s not a victory until it lands on the books,” Silva said. “The big rub here is whether the local entities are being pre-empted of their local jurisdiction.”

NATOA isn’t showing its cards yet, but if it’s planning to take the issue to court it sure didn’t show it in a dry reaction it issued immediately following the FCC’s ruling.

While the issue isn’t completely free of controversy (what is?), it’s still much less radioactive than issues like net neutrality and spectrum, for example. In essence, the tower-siting shot clock ruling is one piece of the FCC’s signature issue of the day: rapid broadband growth and penetration.

Calm before the storm

There’s little doubt the tower industry is on the verge of a phase of feverish building as carriers move to new spectrum, upgrade networks to 4G, and continue to fill in coverage gaps across the country. CTIA hopes the tower-siting shot clock will at least alleviate some of the hurdles standing in the way.

Brian Josef, director of regulatory affairs at CTIA, said towers are just as important as spectrum and spectrum efficiency when it comes to pushing the wireless industry into the broadband wireless era.

“I would argue that you haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg,” Josef said, referring to the aggressive buildout requirements attached to 700 MHz spectrum and the increased buildout being led by AWS-1 licensees just for starters.

He, like many others in the space, expects tower development to hit full stride in 2010. The shot clock is “no quick fix,” he said, but towers play an integral role in delivering coverage and capacity so their potential impact should be evaluated under a more clear-cut timeline.

So what are the potential repercussions of the shot clock? When asked if there’s any concern that these deadlines could lead to more tower applications being denied, Josef replied with an emphatic negative.

“When a carrier sees that a local zoning board is engaged and moving productively to process and they understand the implications of the tower siting application, they’re happy. It’s the instances when like Berkeley, Calif., for example, took a year before they even scheduled the first hearing,” Josef told RCR Wireless News.

“What really concerns carriers is these cases when these applications are put on a shelf and no action is taken,” he added. “I think if a carrier sees that a municipality is engaged and says it’s going to go beyond the time period and there’s good reason for that, I don’t the carrier is going to drop everything and run to court.”

While the tower-siting shot clock is getting mostly cheers from those working in the wireless space, there’s no getting around the fact that cellular towers could just as likely hit snags of another kind entirely. Imposing deadlines is one thing, but working through the unique red-tape flavor of each community is another battle entirely. It’s also becoming more common for municipalities to simply impose a moratorium on zoning applications for towers. Oftentimes, development is being put on hold for months while local authorities struggle to identify their community’s unique wants and concerns.

It just goes to show that the shot clock won’t cure all that ails the tower industry. To their chagrin, most readily admit that issues will continue to crop up and boggle down the process one way or another.

But at the local level, you can be sure developers and contractors are excited to carry some more muscle with them – in the form of an FCC ruling no less – as they make their way through the process.

Matt Kapko can be reached at matt@eyeonm.com

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