Is the environment a barrier to infrastructure deployment?

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April 18th, 2017

This week, the Quello Center had the privilege of hosting Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Biologist, Dr. Joelle Gehring (event page) to discuss her work on reducing avian collisions with communications towers. Dr. Gehring’s work, which was recently profiled by NPR, presently involves collaborating with federal regulators such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and communication tower owners to adjust tower lighting in order to reduce migratory bird collisions.

Back of the envelope calculations suggest that the efforts of Dr. Gehring and her colleagues have the potential to reduce avian fatalities by 4-5 million per year in the U.S. and Canada alone. Moreover, as Dr. Gehring pointed out, the efforts that tower owners need to undertake are relatively minimal and result in reduced maintenance and energy costs. Dr. Gehring briefly outlines the steps that tower owners should undertake here (additional FCC guidance here) and a more complete set of guidelines is available from the FAA.

Dr. Gehring’s work reminded me of ongoing FCC developments concerning the broader topic of environmental compliance by tower owners, an issue dealt with by the FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau’s Competition & Infrastructure Policy Division (CIPD). In particular, as Bill Dutton, Mitch Shapiro and I discuss in our Wireless Regulatory Analysis (see Section 3.1), the FCC’s rules for environmental review ensure that licensees and registrants take appropriate measures to protect environmental and historic resources. In light of all the other major FCC related developments that are grabbing headlines (Susan Crawford tees up some of these here), one that may have been much less noticed is a soon to be released Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Inquiry (NPRM and NOI) concerning the FCC’s environmental and historic review.

Specifically, the NPRM and NOI commence an FCC examination of the regulatory impediments to wireless network infrastructure investment and deployments in an effort to expedite wireless infrastructure deployment. Among the topics discussed by the NPRM are potential changes to the FCC’s approach to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Presently, a new tower construction requires, among other things, approval from state or local governing authorities as well as compliance with FCC rules implementing NEPA and NHPA.

NEPA compliance requires three different levels of analysis depending on the potential environmental impact. Actions which do not have a significant effect on the (human) environment do not require an environmental assessment or impact statement and are categorically excluded. For actions that are not categorically excluded, a document presenting the reasons why the action will not have a significant effect on the environment must be prepared. A detailed written statement is required when an action is determined to significantly affect the quality of the environment.

Naturally, wireless providers seeking to enhance service and expand throughout the U.S. have raised concerns that the FCC’s environmental and historic preservation review processes increase the costs of deployment and pose lengthy delays. Issues that have been raised include the need to compensate Tribal Nations claiming large geographic areas (including several full states) within their geographic areas of interest for review of submissions, the burdens of dual reviews by local authorities and State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO), and the expense of environmental compliance in cases where minimal likelihood of harms are alleged by wireless providers.

The NPRM seeks to mitigate some of the issues, asking stakeholders to weigh in when and what kind of Tribal Nation compensation is justified, how to deal with delays that may result from SHPO review broadly, and whether or not to include categorical exclusions for small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS) facilities. These actions may all be well intended, well-reasoned, and ultimately in the public interest, but what concerns me is how one sided the FCC’s NPRM reads at the moment. The NPRM elaborates on and in some instances quantifies the cost of NEPA and NHPA review, but little attention is devoted to attempting to qualify or quantify the potential benefits of these additional review processes, or alternatively the potential costs of NOT undergoing NEPA and NHPA review.

Having learned about this NPRM quite late in the game myself, I noticed that the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System contains comments from stakeholders on both sides, including wireless service providers and infrastructure owners on one side along with Native Tribes and parties concerned with historic and environmental preservation on the other (the relevant Docket Numbers are 17-79 and 15-180). However, having searched for the word “comment” throughout the NPRM, I observed that the FCC has only cited the former in the NPRM (e.g., see footnotes 72 citing Sprint and Verizon, footnote 73 citing the Competitive Carrier Association, Crown Castle, and Verizon, and so on). Is this an indication that the FCC has already made its decision regarding what to do and simply unveiling the NPRM to indicate that it has thought about the issue before making a ruling? I sincerely hope not, but I am concerned.

Thus, in light of the lack of press concerning this issue I urge the following: If you are worried about the impact that the expansion of wireless infrastructure has on the environment, please make your voice heard. If you have an opinion regarding the extent to which wireless infrastructure developers and/or regulators should consider historic preservation, please tell regulators why you think historic preservation is important. If you are an expert in either of these issues, please try to quantify your response to the FCC. I can’t stress enough the last part: the FCC needs to perform a cost benefit analysis, or stated differently, compare the costs of delays to broadband expansion to those of degradation of environmental preservation standards. If the FCC can place a dollar amount on both issues, it makes it far more likely that a socially and economically sensible decision could be reached.

Dr. Gehring’s own work, which was started over a decade ago during her time as a Conservation Scientist with Michigan State University, highlights the importance of reaching and listening to stakeholders on all sides of the debate. Through her teams’ relentless efforts, regulators were able to come up with environmentally friendly approaches that also reduced costs—a win-win. I hope that regulators can learn from Dr. Gehring’s accomplishments.

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