The US Federal Communication Commission (FCC) could have a fight on its hands over a move to streamline wireless infrastructure siting regulations as pushback from environmental and historical preservation advocates mounts.

On 22 March the commission is expected to vote on an operator-backed order which would exempt small cell deployments from environmental and historical reviews, known respectively as NEPA and NHPA, and streamline reviews for larger wireless facilities.

A recent report from Accenture commissioned by industry group CTIA forecast the changes could reduce the number of small cells requiring review by two-thirds, saving operators $1.56 billion in fees between now and end-2026.

Legality challenged
But in a filing with the FCC, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) slammed the order as “unlawful”, setting the stage for a potential legal battle if the measure is approved. The environmental group argued the FCC’s proposal runs contrary to its statutory obligations and attempts a manoeuvre “beyond its authority”.

“Because the FCC is issuing a licence [for a small wireless facility], it must apply NEPA and the NHPA. The plain language of the applicable statutes and regulations includes licensing within the actions covered by NEPA and the NHPA….While ways exist to streamline the NEPA review, the FCC cannot avoid NEPA altogether for the licences it issues.”

In a statement to Mobile World Live, Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney at NRDC, added the group will “identify what legal remedies we have to contest” the measure if it passes.

Similarly, both the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and private non-profit National Trust for Historic Preservation strongly objected to the order, with the latter contending the FCC does not have “legal authority” to make the proposed changes.

The debate comes as wireless operators press ahead with small cell densification efforts ahead of 5G deployments.

Accenture’s report estimated operators will deploy around 86,000 small cells this year, marking a 550 per cent increase over the number deployed in 2017. But operators warned existing siting regulations and high review fees could slow rollouts and leech away infrastructure investment dollars, hindering progress toward next generation wireless services.