North Carolina county tower approval fight echoes larger issues with siting review processes

New cell towers are often the source of much acrimony and objection in municipalities when mobile service providers undergo siting regulation processes to expand or improve coverage. But at least one county in North Carolina is considering cutting out the process all together to give a wireless ISP a clearer path toward building wireless internet towers.

According to the Smoky Mountain News, SkyFi is proposing to build 11 new wireless internet towers that the company will use to provide last-mile internet access to customers in the Jackson County area. In order to make the buildout easier, Rich Price, Jackson County's economic development director, asked for a special exemption for SkyFi because the existing review process for towers presents a major roadblock for wireless internet companies.

Jackson County Planner Michael Poston also supported skipping the oversight and public review process for SkyFi so the ISP can get busy providing broadband to the underserved rural area.

But not all local officials are so willing to sign off on the project sight unseen. According to the report, Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan recognized the critical need for internet service in the area but was reluctant to give special treatment to a project that might dot the local landscape with towers that "look like crap."

At issue are the public hearings and pricey application fees needed to apply for cell tower permits, which some Jackson County officials argue are too extensive for the wireless internet towers proposed by SkyFi.

The kerfuffle in Jackson County echoes similar standoffs in communities across the U.S. as wireless service providers continually attempt to upgrade network performance with new towers and smaller wireless installations. Such attempts are often met with resistance from local citizens and governments with concerns over the unsightliness and perceived health risks of cellular antennas.

CTIA has been an advocate of relaxing the cellular siting rules in municipalities, which can often hold up deployments for months or years. Last month, CTIA urged the FCC to help streamline the installation of DAS, small cells and other non-macro cellular deployments.

Specifically, the organization asked the FCC to add to the exclusions already established for Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The wireless industry lobbying group wants eliminate the requirement that prior collocations be factored into volumetric calculations and exclude replacement structures from the Section 106 review process.

Meanwhile wireless operators like Verizon have resorted to litigation in some instances where they believe municipalities unduly hold up wireless deployments. In May, Verizon sued a small California town over strict ordinances that essentially banned the installation of any new wireless facilities.

Analysts like Wells Fargo have affirmed the near-term strength for the distributed network systems (DNS) market and have noted that the ability of firms like CCI and ExteNet to gain municipal approval has been key. But Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche warned that new entrants into the DNS market could be disruptive to the point of sparking a legal backlash that could ultimately impede all companies' abilities to expedite the wireless installation permitting process.

For more:
- read this Smoky Mountain News report
- see this Inside Towers article

Related articles:
CTIA urges FCC to modify historical preservation siting rules for small cell, DAS deployments
Verizon sues small California town over restrictive wireless installation ordinance
DNS market strong but new entrants could spark legal backlash, analyst says