On September 26, Verizon Wireless voluntarily dismissed a lawsuit against the City of Fresno, California, as the parties reached an agreement on Verizon's construction of a 5G cell tower. The resolution of the case removes a series of roadblocks to construction of next-generation wireless infrastructure, and it stands as a reminder of the importance of infrastructure siting policies such as "shot clocks" that prohibit unreasonable permit process delays.
Back in July 2021, Verizon filed a permit application to build an 80-foot tower in the back of a parking lot in the downtown area of Fresno, east of a highway, in order to meet wireless traffic capacity demands. The 150-day "shot clock" in which the city was required to make a decision on the permit application, the shot clock expired on February 28, 2022 without the city having reached any such decision. This despite two separate agreements between Verizon and the city of Fresno to toll the 150-day "shot clock" and thereby extend it for the city's benefit. The city made the Verizon's application the subject of four public hearings without having made any final decision when the wireless carrier finally filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California on June 30, 2022.
Under Section 332(c)(7)(B)(ii) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a local government must "act on any request for authorization to place, construct, or modify personal wireless facilities within a reasonable period of time." In its 2009 Wireless Infrastructure Order (or Shot Clock Ruling), the FCC used its discretionary authority to interpret that statutory provision by establishing a rebuttable presumption that a "reasonable period of time" is 90 days to process a "collocation" application and 150 days to process all other applications – including the construction of new cell towers like the one Verizon is now going to build in Fresno.
On its face, it seems quite unlikely that Fresno would have been able to overcome the presumption that its lengthy and ongoing delay in making any decision about whether to approve or deny Verizon's cell tower permit application was justified. The city almost surely would have taken a loss in court, and Verizon would have obtained judicial relief necessary to build the tower. Now that the matter has been resolved, Verizon will build the tower and expand its 5G network coverage and capacity for residents in Fresno.
The lawsuit in Fresno MSA Partnership Limited (Verizon) v. City of Fresno and its result bespeak the continued need for wireless infrastructure citing rules that prohibit unreasonable permit processing delays and other unreasonable local regulatory obstacles to building next-generation wireless infrastructure. If there had been no "shot clock," who knows how long the administrative delay in Fresno would have continued?
My Free State Foundation former colleague Andrew Magloughlin and I made this same basic point in a June 2020 Perspectives from FSF Scholars titled "The FCC Should Preserve and Expand Its Broadband Infrastructure Reforms." In that Perspectives, we wrote: "Local regulatory barriers to broadband infrastructure deployment have come in the forms of moratoria on construction permit approval, lengthy administrative processing periods for permit applications, high fees for filing permits that bear no relation to the costs of reviewing applications, and high recurring fees for providing service." Our Perspectives focused on the infrastructure policy reforms adopted by FCC between 2018 and 2021. As we explained in that paper:
The Commission's important recently-adopted infrastructure policy reforms preempt such barriers to broadband facilities construction and upgrades. By reducing unnecessary local regulatory costs, the Commission's reforms help preserve provider resources for investment in additional broadband infrastructure, including in harder-to-serve areas. And the elimination or reduction of excessive local administrative delays allows consumers timelier access to 5G, fiber, and gigabit-speed cable broadband services.
The federal government has allocated $42.45 billion in funds through the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program as well as billions more through other programs to subsidize buildout of broadband network facilities to unserved Americans. Having infrastructure siting policies like shot clocks in place will help ensure that those billions achieve their purpose in connecting more Americans and closing the digital divide.