COVID-19 Could Change Permitting Processes with Municipalities

Working with municipalities on permitting and siting is an essential and sometimes complex part of building wireless networks for carriers and infrastructure providers. The relationship with municipalities is evolving as new fiber-optic lines, small-cell networks and a denser array of wireless antennas are needed to support 5G and increasing broadband capacity demands.

During a Connect (X): All Access panel, infrastructure executives versed in the intricacies of working with local zoning commissions and public works offices shared their thoughts on how processes have been altered by COVID-19 — some perhaps forever — and what the ongoing challenges are that all stakeholders will still face, including aesthetics, streamlining siting reviews and the new budget realities for municipalities in a post-COVID-19 world.

The panel titled “Best Practices in Collaborating with Communities & Carriers” was moderated by Alan Tilles, attorney with the law firm Shulman Rogers and outside counsel for the Government Wireless Technology & Communications Association. Panelists included Mike Hill, Assistant General Counsel, Regulatory Affairs for ExteNet Systems; Rebecca Hunter, Vice President, Aero Smart Communities; Amandus Derr, Government Relations Manager, Crown Castle; and Ed Roach, Associate General Counsel, SBA Communications.

The panelists overwhelmingly agreed that COVID-19 social distancing orders have shined a positive light on wireless connectivity as an essential service that people need to continue to learn, work and play. In most cases, municipalities have implemented procedures that have allowed the work of building wireless infrastructure to continue during the pandemic, they said.

Related: WIA Supports Municipality-Industry Collaboration Tools for Continuing Wireless Infrastructure Permitting

“What we’ve seen largely nationwide is an ability to continue our deployment activities,” said Hill. “We are as busy as before the emergency and in fact busier in some areas. We’ve been able to work very successfully with our community partners to ensure continuity of review and permitting and deployment to the greatest extent possible.”

Hill noted that some of the municipalities ExteNet works with that previously required physical signatures and hard copies of drawings have transitioned to electronic submission and review of documents, and some municipalities have accelerated existing plans that were already in the works to permanently implement full electronic review. The designation of wireless as essential infrastructure by the Department of Homeland Securityv has also helped wireless technicians continue working during the crises when met with resistance from municipalities and local authorities, he said.

The panelists pointed to several processes they have encountered in their interactions with municipalities before and during COVID-19 that could be considered best practices going forward. These include implementing administrative permitting processes that eliminate reviews by city councils and various enforcement groups, delegating authority for review of wireless applications to an appropriate agency, allowing batch permitting, providing good communication on the status of applications, deploying electronic review and permitting capabilities, and accepting online payments.

However, there are challenges that will remain in the permitting process, the panelists said. Aesthetics is a primary concern when it comes to small-cell deployments.

“We consider ourselves the last owner of the assets we are deploying, so where we are deploying these small cells, we are going to work with you and we’re going to come up with a solution that fits the aesthetics of the area,” said Derr. “Sometimes it’s a little bit more expensive in certain areas but we are willing to work with you and find a solution that’s really going to fit in.”

Educating municipalities about 5G and encouraging updated ordinances and zoning regulations will also remain a focus, particularly in the area of advocating for batch approvals, said Roach.

“I think effectively it makes a lot of sense because you aren’t telling the jurisdiction you don’t have the opportunity to review it, you’re just asking them to do it in a more efficient manner,” Roach said. “They get to look at everything, but it’s not coming back for one permit and then coming back for another permit when these networks are really designed to work together.”

Collaboration and clearly defined siting rules and guidelines may prove important to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, said Hunter.

“I think we are going to see collaboration where the city needs to deploy cameras, environmental sensing, different roadside units for transportation, and I think you are going to see opportunities for carriers and cities to collaborate on those needs. I think that’s an opportunity we have now and it will also continue,” said Hunter.

Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, municipalities and jurisdictions are likely to be budget constrained and will require the wireless industry to be cognizant of gaps in staffing that could impact siting reviews, said Hunter. Streamlining processes and using technology to create efficiencies could be key to moving forward for all parties involved.

“One thing I’ve seen in other industries, particularly in building departments throughout the country, is the ability for professional PEs and registered architects to professionally certify that their plans are safe, meet the requirements of the city code and city requirements, and that helps eliminate some of the review that might be necessary for certain things,” said Derr. “If there’s a set process and set guidelines set requirements for what’s required to deploy fiber and small cells in the right of way, there might be an opportunity for cities to embrace this idea that these professionals are putting their engineering and architectural licenses on the line and that it’s going to be safe to deploy. That might be another aspect that cities might be able to look at to ensure that construction and plans are safe and meet code requirements but also help deal with budget shortfalls and issues that many of these cities are going to face going forward.”

To view the session in its entirety, visit