Building a new tower or collocating an antenna on an existing structure requires compliance with the Commission’s rules for environmental review. These rules ensure that licensees and registrants take appropriate measures to protect environmental and historic resources, and that the agency meets its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to consider the potential environmental impact of its actions, as well as under other environmental statutes such as the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A new tower construction requires:
- Approval from the state or local governing authority for the proposed site;
- Compliance with FCC rules implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which includes separate procedures for
- ESA; and,
- Depending on the tower's height and location, construction may also require:
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notification; and,
- Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) with the FCC.
In 2016, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau held a workshop which provides a general overview of the process.
Collocations, including Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and Small Cells, may also require compliance with these same processes. See the Collocation Agreement and Factsheet for more information about collocations that require compliance with NEPA, NHPA, FAA and ASR rules. The Commission’s October 2014 Infrastructure Report and Order includes some NEPA and NHPA exclusions specific to DAS and Small Cell deployments.
State and Local Authorities
Section 332(c)(7) of the Communications Act preserves state and local authority over zoning and land use decisions for personal wireless service facilities, but sets forth specific limitations on that authority. Specifically, a state or local government may not unreasonably discriminate among providers of functionally equivalent services, may not regulate in a manner that prohibits or has the effect of prohibiting the provision of personal wireless services, must act on applications within a reasonable period of time, and must make any denial of an application in writing supported by substantial evidence in a written record. The statute also preempts local decisions premised directly or indirectly on the environmental effects of radio frequency (RF) emissions, assuming that the provider is in compliance with the Commission's RF rules.
Allegations that a state or local government has acted inconsistently with Section 332(c)(7) are to be resolved exclusively by the courts (with the exception of cases involving regulation based on the health effects of RF emissions, which can be resolved by the courts or the Commission). Thus, other than in RF emissions cases, the Commission's role in Section 332(c)(7) issues is primarily one of information and facilitation.
Section 1455(a) of the Communications Act, enacted as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, establishes a further limitation on state and local land use authority over certain wireless facilities. Specifically, it provides that a state or local government may not deny and shall approve any eligible facility request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station, and defines eligible facility requests as including requests for the collocation, removal, or replacement of transmission equipment.
The Commission has adopted a rule, codified at 47 C.F.R. § 1.40001, to further clarify and implement these requirements.
FCC Items Related to Section 332(c)(7) and Section 1455(a) include:
- Report and Order, FCC 00-408, adopted November 13, 2000 (establishing procedures for requesting relief under Section 332(c)(7) from impermissible State and local regulation of wireless facilities based on the environmental effects of RF emissions.
- Declaratory Ruling, FCC 09-99, adopted November 18, 2009 (clarifying certain aspects of the limits on state and local authority under Section 332(c)(7)).
- Report and Order, FCC 14-153, adopted October 21, 2014 (adopting rule to clarify and implement requirements of Section 1455(a), and providing further clarification of Section 332(c)(7)).
The National Environmental Policy Act
NEPA requires agencies to consider and disclose the environmental effects of its actions to improve decision-making and encourage transparency, public participation, and accountability. Effects are defined broadly to include ecological, aesthetic, historic, social, and cumulative and indirect effects.
NEPA has three levels of review, depending on the significance of the effect (which, in turn, depends on the context and intensity of the action; for example, a tall, guyed tower in an ecologically sensitive area is likely to have more significant effects than a short, unguyed tower in an industrial area):
Categorical exclusions (CatExs)—for actions or types of actions which individually and cumulatively are deemed to have minimal or no impacts on the environment. The actions may therefore qualify as excluded from detailed environmental analysis.
Environmental Assessments (EAs)—for actions that may have a significant effect, an EA determines potentially significant impacts. If no significant impacts are found, the agency issues a Finding of No Significant Effect (FONSI).
Environmental Impact Statements (EISs)—for major federal actions with the potential to significantly affect the quality of the human environment. These actions require a detailed analysis of actions and alternatives and concludes with a Record of Decision (ROD).
NEPA does not mandate an outcome or prevent projects from moving forward; it only requires consideration of effects and of alternatives to mitigate the environmental effects of a project. To implement NEPA, each federal agency adopts its own procedures, and the Council on Environmental Quality oversees NEPA implementation.
FCC’s NEPA Process
The FCC considers registering and licensing towers and facilities to be actions that trigger agency NEPA obligations. Consequently, FCC rules impose enforceable duties on licensees and applicants in order to meet the agency’s NEPA obligations.
All facilities constructed by or for FCC licensees must comply with agency environmental regulations implementing NEPA. The rules apply to all licensees and registrants: commercial licensees, utilities, public safety, railroads, and mining companies. Because licensees and registrants cannot locate on a facility that has not gone through a NEPA review, tower constructors that are neither licensees nor registrants must also follow these rules. These regulations ensure agency compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as well.
While the agency has delegated the initial assessment of CatExs (and certification to that effect if required) and preparation of EAs to licensees and applicants, compliance with NEPA rests with the FCC.
FCC environmental rules categorically exclude all actions from detailed environmental review except those associated with the construction of facilities that fall into certain categories. The categories of facilities requiring environmental assessments (EAs) include those facilities:
- Located in a wilderness area (most likely on federal land) or in a wildlife preserve (likely on federal land);
- That might affect threatened and endangered species or their habitat (ESA);
- That might affect properties included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) or Indian religious and cultural sites;
- That will be in a floodplain;
- Whose construction will involve “significant changes in surface features” (e.g., in wetlands, water diversions, significant ground disturbance, deforestation);
- That might affect migratory birds if the towers are over 450 feet; or
- That involve high intensity lighting in a residential area or would cause RF radiation in excess of FCC-established limits.
If any element of a proposed project – including the tower, fence, trenching, roads, parking, power and fiber connections and their operation and maintenance – falls into any of these categories, the applicant must file an EA which discloses those effects and on which the public can comment.
Complying with FCC environmental regulations requires completing an analysis of the categories BEFORE certifying that there is no significant environmental effect. Analysis includes, for example, compliance with ESA and NHPA requirements.
After an EA is filed, the document is put on public notice for one month, during which time the FCC ensures its sufficiency. If no objections or issues are identified, the FCC issues a FONSI.
Despite the presumption of actions being categorical exclusion, the agency may order additional environmental review on issues beyond the above checklist, or upon consideration of public comments. The agency may also ask for mitigation to reduce project impacts.
Grading soil, removing vegetation, clearing an area or otherwise beginning construction or building without following these requirements or before completion of the FCC’s environmental process can constitute a violation of FCC rules and subject the party to potential enforcement action. Granting of a license is NOT an authorization to build unless all environmental review requirements have been met.
Below is more information about the FCC NEPA process and compliance with related environmental statutes.
- NEPA Checklist
- NEPA FAQs
- NEPANet - A One Stop Shop for NEPA-Related Information
- Download NEPA_FactSheet.pdf (410.09 KB)
- Download Form 601 flow chart.pdf (152.02 KB)
- Download Form 854 flowchart.pdf (101.61 KB)
- Download NEPA_Process_Overview.pdf (175.28 KB)
Endangered Species Act
Section 1.1307(a)(3) of the Commission’s rules, 47 C.F.R. §1.1307(a)(3), requires applicants, licensees, and tower owners (applicants) to consider the impact of proposed facilities on sensitive species and their habitat. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), 16 U.S.C. s. 1531 et seq…..it is prohibited to “take” (i.e., to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.) Applicants must therefore determine before constructing and before submitting an EA if required whether any proposed facility may affect listed, threatened or endangered species or designated critical habitats, or are likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any proposed threatened or endangered species or designated critical habitats.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which administers the ESA, provides an online mapping tool to determine which species may need to be considered for proposed facilities. If a qualified biologist determines that proposed facilities may have an effect, a licensee or registrant must notify the FCC and file an environmental assessment. Applicants must submit a request for FWS concurrence with the Applicant’s effects determination. If the FWS determines that the proposed facility will affect protected species or habitats, Applicants must enter formal consultation with the FWS. The FCC provides a letter designating applicants as non-federal representatives of the FCC for purposes of consultation with the FWS. In significant portions of the US, applicants must follow the FWS Framework to consider effects to the Northern Long-Eared Bat. In some regions, FWS offers Blanket Clearance to proposed facilities meeting certain criteria to streamline these processes.
- FWS Delegation Letter
- Online Endangered Species Act Review using IPaC
- Fact Sheet: Minimizing Habitat Fragmentation
- Fact Sheet: Minimizing Effects on Prairie Grouse and Sage Grouse
- Guidance on Northern Long-Eared Bat
Under the Note to paragraph (d) of Section 1.1307, the Commission requires an Applicant to prepare an EA that considers the effects on migratory birds when a proposed antenna structure will be over 450 feet above ground level (AGL). Each year, millions of birds collide with communications towers and die. Tall, lit, and guy-wired towers are implicated in significantly more bird fatalities than short, unlit, self-supported towers. However, towers of almost any height have the potential to harm migratory birds, and tower owners can reduce or minimize these effects in a number of ways, often with little or no cost to the tower owner. For example, because birds are attracted to non-flashing lights but less so to flashing lights, using flashing lights can prevent collisions.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has formulated voluntary guidelines for tower siting to address potential effects on migratory birds. These guidelines include suggestions on tower siting, height, and lighting to avoid adverse effects to migratory birds. The Avian Power Line Interaction Committee (APLIC), a collaboration of the utility industry, wildlife resource agencies, conservation groups, and manufacturers of avian protection products, also developed guidance for methods to reduce bird/power line electrocutions and collisions which reduces bird mortalities and associated power outages. Tower owners should consider incorporating these guidelines into their tower projects and maintenance operations.
As of December 4, 2015, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) no longer permits red non-flashing lights on new towers over 350 feet. It also asked owners of existing towers to submit plans for changing their tower lights. The FCC and FAA have developed a process by which registrants may extinguish non-flashing lights on existing towers over 350 feet AGL. After September 15, 2016, towers between 150 and 350 feet AGL will also be expected to have only flashing lights.
- Fact Sheet: Addressing Raptor Nesting on Towers
- FAA Advisory Circular on Obstruction Marking and Lighting
In order to better protect endangered species and migratory birds, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau released a Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) that evaluates the potential environmental effects of the FCC’s Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) program.
The National Historic Preservation Act
The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 is implemented through the FCC's environmental rules. Section 106 of the NHPA requires federal agencies to consider the effects of federal undertakings on historic properties. Commission licensees and applicants are delegated the responsibility for initiating the Section 106 review process for proposed facilities, identifying and evaluating historic properties, and assessing effects. This process includes consultation with the relevant State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) and/or Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) to determine whether the proposed facility may have an adverse effect on sites that are listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
- Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 800, Subpart B.
- Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) Home Page
- MO&O clarifying licensees' responsibilities in complying with the NHPA.
The Nationwide Programmatic Agreement
The Commission has entered into two Nationwide Programmatic Agreements (NPAs) with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), which is the agency that oversees NHPA implementation, and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) on the Section 106 process for new tower construction and collocation of communications equipment on existing tower structures.
- The Nationwide Programmatic Agreement: Learning Interactive Unit
- Nationwide Programmatic Agreement Regarding the Section 106 National Historic Preservation Act Review Process Report and Order
FCC Form 620 (new towers) and FCC Form 621 (collocations) are available on the FCC Forms Page. Applicants can submit these forms electronically at Section 106 Submissions. Prior to submitting, the applicant must confirm whether the specific SHPO utilizes E-106 for Section 106 reviews and determine their preferred submittal procedures.
If a SHPO has not responded within 30 days, determinations of “No Adverse Effect” can be submitted to the Commission by following procedures outlined in Public Notice DA 05-599. Such referrals may be made through the E-106 system when the Form 620 or 621 has been submitted electronically. Otherwise, they should be made electronically at Section 106 Submissions.
Section 106 Tools
The NHPA requires that federal agencies must consult with any Indian tribe that attaches religious and cultural significant to historic properties affected by an undertaking in carrying out the Section 106 review process.
Since 2004, the Commission has maintained the Tower Construction Notification System (TCNS), an on-line, password-protected system that notifies federally-recognized Indian Tribes, Native Hawaiian Organizations (NHOs), and State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs) of proposed communication tower construction in their areas of interest. Recipients can respond directly to the companies if they have concerns about a proposed construction.
In order to use the FCC’s online filing systems, you need an FCC Registration Number (FRN).
The Commission follows guidance published by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) with respect to the role of Tribal Nations in the Section 106 Review Process.
Indian Tribal Contacts
Section 106 Reviews for Wireless Communications Facilities Construction and Modification Involving Multiple Federal Agencies
In 2009, the ACHP issued a Program Comment to facilitate the deployment of broadband by eliminating duplicative Section 106 reviews for projects regulated by the Commission but funded or otherwise subject to involvement by another federal agency.
The Program Comment was extended and expanded in 2015, and relieves the US Department of Agriculture Rural Utility Service (RUS), National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIAA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) from the need to comply with Section 106 for communication facilities that have undergone or will undergo Section 106 review by the FCC.
Additional Pre-Construction Requirements
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
Notification to the FAA is required for any tower construction or alteration of an antenna structure that is registered with the Commission. Towers that meet certain height and location criteria (generally towers more than 200 feet above ground level or located near an airport) require notice to the FAA and registration with the FCC. Prior to completing registration with the Commission, an antenna structure owner must have notified the FAA (via FAA Form 7460-1) and received a final determination of 'no hazard' from the FAA.
The FCC's TOWAIR program can be used to unofficially determine if a proposed construction meets FAA notification and FCC registration requirements. However, proposed antenna structure owners (applicants) must still file a Notice of Construction (FAA Form 7460 -1) with the FAA to obtain a No Hazard Determination.
Antenna Structure Registration (ASR)
Once applicants obtain a No Hazard Determination from the FAA, the ASR requires applicants to submit the FAA’s study number, along with FCC Form 854, to the Commission. The Commission then verifies with the FAA the accuracy of the marking and lighting specifications provided by the applicant. If the Commission accepts the application, it issues an ASR form (Form 854R), which typically incorporates the FAA’s “no hazard” marking and/or lighting specifications and assigns the antenna an ASR number. Once an antenna structure is registered, its owner must ensure that the structure complies with all of the relevant FAA chapters specified on the registration, or the owner may be subject to Commission enforcement action. No changes to the specifications in the ASR are permitted without prior approval from both the FAA and the Commission; owners seeking to change an antenna structure’s specifications must first seek FAA approval, and only then may they file a request with the Commission to modify the ASR. Prior to changing the marking or lighting on the structure, antenna structure owners must receive a modified ASR form from the Commission incorporating the change. Once the antenna structure or tower is constructed or altered, the owner must then file FAA Form 7460-2, Notice of Completion of Construction or Alteration, with the FAA, and FCC Form 854 with the FCC notifying both agencies that the construction has been completed.
Antenna Structure Painting and Lighting
The FCC's ASR program fulfills the FCC statutory duty to require the painting and lighting of antenna structures that may pose a hazard to air navigation. Based on FAA recommendations, the FCC requires the structure to be painted and lighted as necessary to make it conspicuous to aircraft. Part 17 of the Commission’s rules outlines these painting and lighting requirements. Importantly, antenna structure owners must immediately report any top light or flashing obstruction light outage or malfunction lasting more than thirty (30) minutes to the FAA by either their direct entry tool or by calling 877-487-6867, for Alaska 800-478-3576, so that a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) can be issued. Continue to the FAA Light Outage Reporting webpage. The NOTAM Process Streamlining Measures PN gives a more detailed explanation of the NOTAM process.
While the Commission requires antenna structure owners to register and exercise primary responsibility for painting and lighting of antenna structures meeting the registration criteria, licensees and permittees, collocated on the tower or antenna structure, are also responsible to ensure that the structure maintain all FAA and FCC painting and lighting requirements. This FAA's Advisory Circular Marking and Lighting FAQs provides answers to some painting and lighting questions.