State wireless facility reforms promise jobs and economic benefits

As states look to balance budgets and inspire local economic investment, lawmakers should consider adopting wireless facilities siting reforms as a way to encourage economic growth. So far this year, three state legislatures have passed pro-growth reforms to remove local regulatory barriers to building and upgrading wireless infrastructure facilities. With more people using wireless, mobile data traffic continues to escalate. Cisco Systems forecasted that “[g]lobal mobile data traffic will increase 13-fold between 2012 and 2017.” Public safety personnel, businesses and students all rely on dependable, high-speed wireless broadband. Construction of new cell towers, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and other infrastructure is critical to ensure that wireless data-traffic capacity is widely available, reliable, and economical for consumers.

Wider and more rapid deployment of 4G wireless broadband networks depend on new wireless infrastructure facilities. 4G offers higher data transmission capacity, improved technical quality and reliability and better security. Next-generation enhancements mean lower costs for wireless consumers. And a more robust communications system offers enhanced support for public safety services.

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There is a tremendous economic benefit to developing and improving wireless infrastructure facilities. New tower construction and collocations of antennas on existing sites helps local economies. New towers typically cost between $250,000 and $300,000, and collocations run upward from $25,000. Moreover, new 4G wireless broadband networks support local job growth and improve economic vitality. Economists Robert Shapiro and Kevin Hassett found in their recent study that "every 10 percent increase in the adoption of 3G and 4G wireless technologies could add more than 231,000 new jobs to the U.S. economy in less than a year."

Unfortunately, differing, cumbersome and unnecessarily complex local government permit processes have impeded investment and construction of new wireless facilities infrastructure in many states. Denials or long delays in approving permits for new cell towers or antenna collocations have been the experience for countless wireless infrastructure providers. Public safety communications challenges and lost economic opportunities, including foregone job creation, are regrettable byproducts of these denials and delays.

This year, legislatures in Georgia and Missouri enacted legislation to prohibit their local governments from unnecessarily delaying decision-making and imposing arbitrary fees on permit applications. And Washington state enacted legislation to provide simpler permit processing for small cell sites. Other states should consider following in their path if they want better wireless connectivity and the benefits it brings to people and business.

Georgia House Bill 176, sponsored by my colleague, Rep. Don Parsons (R), requires local governments to make final decisions within 150 days to approve or deny permit applications for new wireless facilities. Among other things, Georgia HB 176 also safeguards against bureaucratic delays based on new wireless facility permit applications claimed to be incomplete. HB 176 requires local governments to return incomplete applications within 30 days, and they may only request “documents, information, and fees specifically enumerated in the local governing authority's regulations, ordinances, and forms pertaining to the location, construction, collocation, modification, or operation of wireless facilities.” In addition, the Georgia law ends the regular practice of imposing excessive permit processing fees.

Other policy solutions are available and should be considered by states that seek to advance wireless broadband connectivity. States can set timeframes for new tower or collocation permit applications – and deem those applications granted when the local governments fail to act. To address possible local government refusals to fairly and promptly process applications for wireless infrastructure facilities, states can clarify permit application completion requirements and adopt procedural safeguards to avoid potential abuses. States can also reform their tax policies to remove the business-to-business taxes levied on the equipment used to build the wireless infrastructure making it more affordable to build out the network, especially in rural areas.

States should proactively pursue regulatory and tax reforms to remove roadblocks to wireless infrastructure facility construction. Greater economic and public safety benefits will come to states that best position themselves to enhance their 4G wireless broadband network build-out.

Hill has represented a metropolitan Atlanta district since 2005. He is the Georgia public sector state co-chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives that draws up and promotes legislative proposals across the nation. He is also the public sector chair of the ALEC Task Force on Health and Human Services.