Documenting the True—and High—Local Administrative Costs of Small Cell Siting

Shawn Thompson, Principal Engineer

A hundred bucks. That’s what the FCC recently decided is adequate compensation to your locality for processing a small cell application. In many cases, it’s not going to be enough.

And if your actual costs are indeed higher than $100, you will effectively be forced by the new FCC rules to subsidize the telecommunications industry—unless you can build a strong and reasonable case for why your actual, documented costs are higher and should be recovered by your community.

With the January 14 effective date looming for the new FCC order preempting local authority over small cell siting, we recently outlined Ten Strategies that your locality, state agency, or utility can adopt in this newly restrictive environment. We later described how careful processes are your best defense.

We turn now to the question of costs. The FCC set low default wireless facilities siting application fees that localities can charge: $500 for up to five sites; $100 per site thereafter; and recurring fees in the rights-of-way limited to $270 per site per year. But the FCC also allows you to charge a “reasonable approximation” of your “objectively reasonable costs.”

Let’s remember that these technologies will be dotting the landscape for decades, so doing this right is worthwhile. We at CTC have been assisting public agencies and utilities on wireless facilities siting for a long time—long enough to know that the FCC’s numbers are low relative to most actual costs.

So lately we’ve been documenting exactly what “reasonable” looks like. This means sitting down with clients to detail what a proper application and review process consists of, and how long each task consumes in staff time and other expenses. (And no, we aren’t including consulting in the calculation.) We’ve built highly detailed spreadsheets documenting all this. Bottom line: We have found that in some cases a new siting might cost north of $1,500 for a proper review.

To be clear, a proper review entails:

  1. Examining an application upon intake for accuracy and completeness of all stated measurements, locations, and supporting documentation.
  2. Reviewing the documentation from both the engineering and zoning compliance perspectives (those are two different things).
  3. Performing an on-site survey (in some cases) to verify measurements and locations for proposed new or collocated facilities.
  4. Circling back to the applicant to flag problems identified in the steps above, then verifying that any changes are accurate.
  5. Conducting a post-installation inspection, just like a gas or electrical inspector would do after work is done at your house.

Consider just the first part—reviewing an application upon intake. This should include verification checks that ownership and structure types on applications match local records; that addresses and zones are reported accurately; and that any required documents—such as maps, structural analyses, cut sheets, balloon test results, photo simulations, microwave path studies, and RF maps (depending what is required)—are included and sufficient. Part of this information will be used to determine whether an initial site inspection is required.

Once you carefully look at each task and the time it takes, you can see how the numbers can easily run into several hundred dollars, or even $1,500 for a complex siting case. Fees that range into this territory may be not merely objectively reasonable, but eminently so.

Another approach to ensure full recovery of your costs is to use the competitive bidding process to secure the best price for outsourced soup-to-nuts execution of these processes. A robust competitive process should, by definition, result in the lowest price possible for the effort necessary, and could thus serve as the basis for your cost recovery model. (As with all strategies related to this complex and risky new area, be sure your legal counsel is comfortable with this approach.)

Either way, if you want what’s due, you need to do your due diligence. You would be well advised to define and document your efforts and set application fees that truly recoup your costs. Otherwise, you may be stuck accepting the FCC’s lowball numbers.

Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2019 by CTC Technology & Energy