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Wireless Communication Facilities

This page provides information and resources related to wireless communications issues faced by Washington local governments, including small cell technology, wireless antenna facilities, and the federal prohibition on local government restrictions dealing with direct broadcast satellite (DBS) dishes, TV antennas, and ham radio antennas.

It is part of MRSC's series on Telecommunications.


“Wireless" is a broad term that encompasses many different types of technologies and devices that transmit data over the air rather than over wires, including cellular communications.

Most wireless communication facilities/tools are located in public rights-of-way and are, therefore, subject to local government oversight. Agencies can exercise their authority to regulate the public right-of-way through franchises, master permits, and right-of-way use agreements that authorize utilities and other business entities to use the right-of-way under contractual obligation and subject to local permitting requirements.

Small Cell Technology

In recent years, the increased use of wireless devices has triggered the need for small cell technology to increase coverage.  A typical small cell is between 25-45 feet in height, attaches to existing utility poles or light/traffic pole within the right-of-way, and requires an aerial or underground line to access power and fiber in order to transmit cellular phone and data signals. 

As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in applications from providers seeking to place small cell facilities in municipal rights-of-way. In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a two-part Declaratory Ruling with the intent to streamline the deployment of Fourth Generation (4G) and Fifth Generation (5G) mobile communication system infrastructure. Key points of the ruling are listed and briefly discussed in this 2019 MRSC Insight blog

Regulating Small Cell Technology

MRSC has received requests for examples of city ordinances that address small cell technology.  In the past, many cities have regulated wireless facilities through their zoning codes.  However, placement of small cell facilities in the rights-of-way may require cities to integrate their zoning approval process for wireless with right-of-way processes (franchise and master use permits). 

There is no “cookie cutter” approach for doing this, and each city will need to make policy choices in the course of updating their codes to address small cell technology. 

Examples of Small Cell Technology Ordinances

Examples of Small Cell Franchise Applications

The applications below are for the location of telecommunications facilities within the city right-of-way and special uses for wireless telecommunication.  

Wireless Antenna Facilities

Cities, towns and counties across the country need to make sure that their regulations regarding wireless antenna facility siting are consistent with section 6409(a) of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, as set forth in the FCC’s October 2014 Acceleration of Broadband Deployment Order.

Local governments can develop ordinances and policies to provide opportunities for wireless communication facilities (WCF) consistent with the statutory rights of wireless communication service providers while also providing for an orderly development of the city and protecting the health, safety, and general welfare of the city’s residents and property owners. 

Regulating Wireless Antenna Facilities

A primary objective of these ordinances is to preserve the existing visual and aesthetic character of the jurisdiction and its neighborhoods, as well as minimizing the noise impacts generated by these facilities.

In 2012, a consortium that included the Wireless Infrastructure Association (PCIA), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACO) released a model ordinance to assist local governments with the challenge of siting wireless communications facilities. The Kenyon Dissend PLLC law firm in Issaquah has a model ordinance for its municipal clients in Washington State.

Examples of Wireless Antenna Facilities Ordinances and Codes

  • Bothell Municipal Code Ch. 12.11 — Addresses designated areas for WCFs, permitting, dimensional standards, siting, cost recovery, facility maintenance, signage, WCF testing, and noise restrictions
  • Marysville Municipal Code Ch. 5.73 — Requires WCF owners and operators to obtain a franchise license from the city
  • Sammamish Municipal Code Ch. 21A.55 — Includes lengthy design standards and prohibits WCF operators from using light poles and/or standards to support antenna or antenna array
  • Snohomish County Municipal Code Ch. 30.28A — Exempts military and civilian radar systems, wireless radio for temporary emergency communications, and temporary mobile cellular towers used for testing. Encourages WCFs to collocate with each other.
  • Tukwila Municipal Code Ch. 18.58 — Offers a detailed list of exemptions, allows for the reduction or dismissal of standards for WCFs where the visual impact of the tower is minimized through landscaping
  • Walla Walla Ordinance No. 2022-26 (2022) Amends zoning code to allow wireless facilities in residential zoning districts, on houses of worship or offices, or on top of buildings that are taller than 35 feet, as long as they use stealth design and technology so that they blend into the surrounding environment.

Permitting Process for Wireless Antenna Facilities

On January 8, 2014, AWC sponsored a webinar on the changing regulations and laws regarding the permitting process for wireless antenna facilities. We encourage you to review the two PowerPoint presentations or watch the entire webinar.

The federal law and rule changes were made to expedite the processing of applications for new antenna facilities or changes to existing facilities. The federal rule changes include what is referred to as the "shot clock" rule, which limits the time that a local government can take to either grant or deny an application. The state of Washington has added a categorical SEPA exemption for certain antenna installations.

Over-the-Air Reception Devices

In 1996, the Commission adopted the Over-the-Air Reception Devices Rule concerning governmental and nongovernmental restrictions on viewers' ability to receive video programming signals from direct broadcast satellites (DBS), multichannel multipoint distribution (wireless cable) providers (MMDS), and television broadcast stations (TVBS). The rule is cited as 47 C.F.R. § 1.4000.

It prohibits restrictions that impair the installation, maintenance or use of antennas used to receive video programming. The rule applies to video antennas including direct-to-home satellite dishes that are less than one meter (39.37 inches) in diameter (or of any size in Alaska), TV antennas, and wireless cable antennas. The rule prohibits most restrictions that:

  1. unreasonably delay or prevent installation, maintenance or use;
  2. unreasonably increase the cost of installation, maintenance or use; or
  3. preclude reception of an acceptable quality signal.

Effective January 22, 1999, the Commission amended the rule so that it also applies to rental property where the renter has an exclusive use area, such as a balcony or patio. On October 25, 2000, the Commission further amended the rule so that it also will apply to customer-end antennas that receive and transmit fixed wireless signals.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Compliance

All licensees (companies) erecting antenna facilities must comply with the federal NEPA regulations. If a licensee's proposed action falls within one of the eight categories listed in federal regulation 47 C.F.R. § 1.1307, then 47 C.F.R. § 1.1308(a) requires the licensee to consider the potential environmental effects from its construction of antenna facilities or structures, and disclose those effects in an environmental assessment (EA) which is filed with the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau for review. The categories that trigger the need for an EA include impacts on: endangered species; archaeological, cultural or historic properties; tribal lands; and floodplains. It is the responsibility of all companies erecting wireless facilities to comply with the federal regulations. Local government jurisdictions should assist by informing applicants of all known potential siting problems. Any required EA will also provide valuable information to local officials.

Moratoria and Guidelines for Facilities Siting Implementation 

RCW 35.99.050 requires agencies, prior to imposing a moratorium, to comply with FCC guidelines for facilities siting implementation, which were agreed to by stakeholders in 1998.  Those guidelines can be found on the FCC website.  

Court Decisions

  • City of Arlington, Texas v. FCC, 133 S.Ct. 1863 (2013) — Affirms the 5th Circuit decision that ruled the FCC had the authority to issue regulations establishing the "shot clock" rule, which limits the amount of time that a local government can take to either approve or deny an application for a wireless antenna facility.
  • T-Mobile v. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, 672 F.3d 259 (4th Cir. 2012)  — This decision is not directly binding in our Ninth circuit, but it provides a good discussion of the applicable federal standards and the criteria typically used to review a local government's decision on whether to grant or deny an application for a wireless antenna installation. 
  • Laurence Wolf Capital Management Trust v. City of Ferndale, 128 F.Supp.2d 441 (E.D. Mich. 2000) — This decision on wireless antenna siting deals with typical issues in facility siting litigation: burden of proof on appeal, alternative locations for facility, and adequacy of the written findings of the local government decision denying the permit.
  • Omnipoint v. Newtown Township, 219 F.3d 240 (3rd Cir. 2000) — This cell tower decision recognizes the broad discretion of local zoning decisions. It deals with an antenna permit denial that the company alleged caused a "significant gap" in service. 

Recommended Resources

Last Modified: March 01, 2023