The giant footfalls of the FCC have shattered local control of neighborhoods, streets, and sidewalks, heralding a seismic transformation of cities from Main Street, USA to Westworld, USA. With the ruling entered on September 26, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission has upended city control of local rights of ways. Now cities must quickly approve or deny wireless carriers’ requests to deploy 5G cell installations (commonly referred to as small cell towers). The measure imposes strict shot clocks on cities to act on applications, and further prohibits them from denying installation of small cells on the basis of public health, safety, and aesthetic concerns. Furthermore, the city cannot recover the cost in damages caused by the wireless carriers’ occupation of the right-of-way; instead, the city is limited to recovery of the costs to process the application.
Many cities are worried, and in fact, the National League of Cities has expressed strong opposition to the ruling. The ruling removes most of the tools cities use to preserve the unique and essential character and health of their neighborhoods. Small cell sites cannot be reviewed for environmental impacts, historical character impacts, or even the burden on existing infrastructure. This ruling re-allocates significant local public resources away from local taxpayers and to private wireless companies occupying the local right-of-way, without securing any guarantee of public benefit in return.
The introduction of 5G into cities is an exciting, momentous advance for internet technology; but this ruling is destined to also trigger an equally monumental backslide for urban planning, design, and historic preservation of local communities. Welcome to Westworld, Dolores.