What’s the penalty for defying the FCC, Breckenridge mayor asks
Federal guidelines easing state and local restrictions on the imminent deployment of 5G technologies have prompted Breckenridge to update its design standards in a way the town never wanted to.
One hallmark of 5G technology is blazing fast upload and download speeds. However, handling such massive amounts of data will require a dense array of small-cell antennas, and the deployment of those facilities has local officials worried.
Estimating that a 5G wireless antenna could be necessary for the new technology as frequently as every 500 feet, town staff produced a rendering showing what one of the 5G antenna poles could look like downtown during the last Breckenridge Town Council meeting.
Town attorney Tim Berry told the elected officials they can expect “to have many of these things” when 5G finally makes its way to Breckenridge, which left the mayor panning, “it’s going to look terrible.”
“All the work we’ve done to make our town look like it does will be undone because the FCC doesn’t give a crap about anything other than this fight with China,” Mayor Eric Mamula said as he blasted the Federal Communications Commission. “That’s all this is about. That’s all they want to do.”
After consulting outside counsel, town staff ordered changes in the way Breckenridge processes requests for wireless facilities in April, further limiting the time frame in which the town has to rule on permit applications for new 5G facilities and the fees it may charge to process the applications.
Other stipulations rein in local officials’ ability to review the facilities for their aesthetic impacts on the town, as well as ease requirements for the deployment of the 5G systems on public buildings and within public rights of way.
Corresponding state regulations played a role in Breckenridge’s decision to update local regulations, town staff said, but the move stems directly from the FCC’s efforts to streamline the rollout of 5G technology — not just in Breckenridge, but across the nation — by rolling back local restrictions.
“The FCC makes no bones when they say in their order that they want the United States to have, essentially, full deployment of 5G technology as soon as it can be done to compete with other countries in the world that are further advanced as far as small-cell technology,” Berry explained. “And yes, that may have some impact on local governments. And yes, it may limit the design. And the FCC says, ‘Too bad.’ That’s their political position.”
At the heart of the criticism over the newest rollback of local control is the core of Breckenridge and the town’s Conservation District, which encompasses much of the downtown area and the town’s Historic District.
Given how poorly so many Breckenridge residents reacted to Verizon Wireless securing approval to build the first cellphone antenna in the town’s Conservation District last year, the continued erosion of local control on the deployment of 5G is not likely to go over well.
During the hearings for Verizon’s wireless facility, local planning commissioners had to repeatedly guide public discussions away from pieces of the project the commissioners weren’t allowed to consider — such as potential health effects — because of guidelines previously set by the FCC.
Some hope might rest in an ongoing court challenge, Berry said, but he isn’t too optimistic the ruling will come out in favor of local governments. Plus, he guessed it will take another 12 to 18 months to settle the case, during which time Breckenridge will have to live with the FCC’s guidelines.
“I would say I would rather not have 5G if we’re going to have 30-foot poles all over town,” the mayor said in response to the FCC’s limits.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but the federal government is telling you, ‘You got to have it,’” Berry responded.
Even though the technology is only emerging in major U.S. markets, including Denver, it’s still evolving, and town staff expect they’ll have to continue updating local standards as more information becomes available.
At one point during the discussions, the mayor went fishing for answers about what might happen if the town decided to simply ignore the FCC’s guidelines and impose stricter local regulations on its own.
“What’s the penalty to us?” the mayor asked.
“You get sued and you lose,” the attorney replied.
“And how long does that take?” the mayor continued.
Not long, Berry said to the mayor, as the attorney advised town leaders against challenging the FCC in such a way. Feeling defeated, the mayor wondered aloud if the town might want to put signs on the poles blaming them on the FCC.
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