Preserving Local Voices in Broadband Deployment

I’m not a telecommunications lawyer and don’t usually follow what’s happening at the Federal Communications Commission, but this week I am. At its March 22 meeting, the Commission is set to vote on rule changes that would remove the deployment of small wireless facilities from public participation and environmental review currently in place. NRDC opposes the changes.

What the FCC’s Order Does

  • The FCC published its Wireless Streamlining Report and Order on March 1, 2018. The Commission will vote on whether to approve the order on March 22.
  • The Order makes two changes to the FCC’s rules implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). First, the Order excludes facilities placed in a floodplain as long as they are placed at least one foot above the base flood elevation from NEPA review. Previously, any facility located in a floodplain required at least an Environmental Assessment (EA) under NEPA. Second, the Order changes the rule requiring an EA to exclude: (1) the construction of mobile stations; and (2) small wireless facilities meeting certain criteria.
  • The Order also excludes the deployment of wireless communication facilities from the definition of “undertaking” under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Section 106 of the NHPA requires that “the head of any Federal department or independent agency” shall take into account the effect of any proposed undertaking on historic properties.

Why the FCC’s Order Is a Bad Idea

1. We can rapidly deploy broadband technology without shutting local voices out. The radio spectrum provides for numerous types of wireless communication. The FCC licenses this spectrum for various uses. Currently, a voracious demand for wireless access to the internet (aka “broadband”) dominates such uses. 

The next generation of wireless technology—5G—offers faster data speeds and more reliable service. Rather than large, widely-spaced towers, the new 5G technology requires distributed antenna services and small cell facilities sited much more closely together. 

While the smaller size of these facilities may limit their impacts on a community’s historic, cultural and natural resources, the dramatic increase in their numbers mean more sites will be affected and cumulative impacts could be significant. Involving local elected officials and community members in the planning decisions will help ensure wiser and less controversial decisions.

2. The FCC’s Order discourages collaboration. Numerous stakeholders worked diligently over many months and years to develop a system of review that preserves local voices while allowing rapid deployment of broadband facilities. Like NEPA, the NHPA provides for limited review where impacts are limited.  The FCC has developed Programmatic Agreements with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and others to provide for streamlined review of impacts on historic and cultural resources. The FCC tosses these collaborative efforts aside.  As a result, diverse stakeholders oppose the Order including: the National Congress of American Indians and the National League of Cities, as well as individual tribes and cities across the country.

3. The FCC’s Order is unlawful. The plain language of both NEPA and the NHPA applies these laws to the FCC licensing at issue here. Courts have consistently treated licensing as both a “major federal action” under NEPA and an “undertaking” under the NHPA. The Commission can adjust the amount of review based on the minimal impacts of a licensed activity, but it cannot avoid review all together.

While Congress has encouraged the rapid deployment of wireless technology, it has mandated that it be done in a way that protects the environment as well as historic and cultural resources. NRDC supports the rapid deployment of wireless technology especially to remote communities which currently lack service. Future progress, however, does not require that we forget our past or sacrifice a healthy, vibrant and secure environment.

About the Authors

Sharon Buccino

Senior Director, Land Division, Nature Program

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