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 and subject to local permitting requirements.
In recent years, the increased use of wireless devices has triggered the need for small cell technology to increase coverage. A typical small cell 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. The order limited local governments’ ability to regulate telecommunications providers and the fees which they could charge, and it prevented owners and operators of utility poles from discriminatorily denying or delaying 5G and broadband service providers access to poles. Key points of the ruling are covered in this MRSC Insight blog: FCC’s Declaratory Ruling on 5G Small Cell Wireless Facilities
In 2020 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a majority of the FCC’s 2018 order but vacated provision dealing with the authority of local governments to apply aesthetic regulations to small wireless installations. For more information, see this MRSC Insight blog: The 9th Circuit Backs the FCC in Small Wireless Appeal
Regulating Small Cell Technology
MRSC has received requests for examples of city ordinances that address small cell technology. In the past, many cities 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 when updating their codes to address small cell technology.
Examples of Small Cell Technology Ordinances and Codes
- Buckley Ordinance No. 02-19 (2019) — Revises the city's franchising requirements to address the siting of small wireless facilities to be located in the city's rights-of-way.
- Kenmore Municipal Code Sec. 18.20.3306 — Defines a wireless communication facility; Section 18.60.050 and Section 19.25.020 details the review process(see Types 2 and 3) and Section 18.60.060 allows a single permit to be used for multiple small cells to provide coverage in a contiguous area
- Kirkland Zoning Code sec. 117.15.18 — Defines small cell network while Section 117.40 details the application review process.
- Lake Stevens Ordinance No. 1048 (2019) — Adds new chapter to municipal code relating to all types of wireless communication facilities.
- Renton Ordinance No. 5876 — Amends sections of the city's existing Municipal Code by adding regulations relating to the deployment of small cell, microcells, and distributed antenna systems by establishing standards for permitting, location, aestheticism, and compatibility (see Renton Municipal Code 4-4-140(J) for codified small cell standards).
- SeaTac Ordinance No. 19-1001 (2019) — Adopts interim land use regulations and official controls for small wireless facilities in response to FCC rules preempting local authority. Declares an emergency to address land use review and eligible facilities requests.
- Sequim Municipal Code Sec. 18.61.020 — Defines small cell network while Section 18.61.040 provides that small cells are allowed in all zones and that the applicable permit process depends on whether stealth technology is used and/or a new support structure is being proposed. Section 18.61.070(K) provides that, unless otherwise exempt, all wireless facilities (including small cells) in the public right of way require a franchise.
- Snoqualmie Municipal Code Sec. 17.77.020 — Defines “small cell facility” and “small cell network” while Section 17.77.040 sets forth location hierarchies and provides that small cell facilities require a wireless communications facility permit.
- Spokane Municipal Code Sec. 17C.355A.020 — Defines small cell and Section 17.355A.040 provides that small cells are allowed in all land use zones. Small cells are subject to administrative review only unless installation requires construction of a new support structure. A franchise is required for all wireless communications facilities in the right of way pursuant to Section 17.355A.070.
- Tukwila Ordinance No. 2652 (2021) — Adds a new chapter to the municipal code authorizing and establishing permitting regulations and aesthetic and design standards for the deployment of small cell wireless facilities.
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.
- Bellevue Master License Agreement for Small Wireless Facilities on City Facilities (2019)
- Mountlake Terrace Master Right-of-Way Use Authorization/Franchise Application (2016) and Telecommunication Special Use Wireless Application
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 Disend 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.
- Langley Municipal Code Ch. 18.23 — Covers both small cell and more traditional wireless facilities.
- Marysville Municipal Code Ch. 5.73 — Requires WCF owners and operators to obtain a franchise license from the city.
- Sammamish Municipal Code Sec. 21.06.060— 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
In 2014, AWC sponsored a webinar on the changing regulations and laws regarding the permitting process for wireless antenna facilities. A webinar recording is available.
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.
In 1996, the FCC 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:
- unreasonably delay or prevent installation, maintenance or use;
- unreasonably increase the cost of installation, maintenance or use; or
- preclude reception of an acceptable quality signal.
Effective January 22, 1999, the FCC 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 FCC further amended the rule so that it also will apply to customer-end antennas that receive and transmit fixed wireless signals.
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) that reviewed by the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. The categories that trigger the need for an EA include impacts on: endangered species; archaeological, cultural, or historical 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.
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’s Towner and Antenna Siting webpage.
- City of Arlington, Texas v. FCC, 133 S.Ct. 1863 (2013) — Affirms the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals 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) — 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.
- Omnipoint v. Newtown Township, 219 F.3d 240 (3rd Cir. 2000) — Recognizes the broad discretion of local zoning decisions and involves a permit denial for antenna installation that the company later alleged caused a "significant gap" in service.
- Center for Municipal Solutions (CMS) — This is a private website run by a municipal telecom consulting firm. Their section on wireless antenna siting provides good information and perspective.
- Misconceptions about Regulating Towers and Wireless Facilities (2017) — Lists common misconceptions related to the issue of regulating the siting of towers and wireless facilities, along with a synoptic discussion of each.
- FCC: Wireless Telecommunications Bureau — Provides links to the regulations, frequently asked questions, and resources on NEPA compliance issues.
- Radio Frequency Safety — Addresses issues faced by local governments dealing with safety questions surrounding tower siting radio frequency.
- League of Oregon Cities: FAQ on Small Wireless Facilities (2020) — Includes a model code, model design standards, and materials relating to small wireless facilities.
- MuniWireless — Provides information on municipal wireless broadband projects worldwide that are funded or supported by cities and towns. These range from downtown hot-zones to citywide wireless broadband networks.
- National League of Cities: Small Cell Wireless Technology in Cities (2018) — Provides an overview of small cell wireless technology use and issues.