One step forward, two steps back. The gains the wireless infrastructure industry has seen from the government’s efforts to speed the environmental regulatory process have been set back by the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to panelists at last week’s virtual Wireless West 2021 conference.
In 2018, the FCC released an order designed to accelerate broadband infrastructure investment in which it streamlined National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and tribal consultation of proposed telecom facility deployments, including tribal response time.
The panel, “These Timelines They Are A-Changin’ Section 106 Consultation Before, During and After COVID-19,” discussed how the FCC action and the pandemic have affected the speed of the environmental review process of proposed cell towers and other telecom infrastructure.
Michael Way, senior regulatory compliance manager at Caldwell Compliance, moderated the panel, which consisted of Steve Geist, president of Geist Engineering and Environmental Group, and Chris Kimbrough, Ph.D., vice president of Novo Group.
Before 2018, the tribes had a great deal of control over the review process and the fees that were charged, according to Geist.
“The timeline for review and approval was at least 30 to 50 days, if we were lucky,” Geist said. “Every tribe generally had its own requirements. It could involve surveys; it could be certain studies; it could be certain procedures.”
Prior to 2018, the information sent to the tribal organizations for review did not always use the form preferred by most State Historical Preservation Offices (SHPOs), which take steps much like a local building permit review process, only it is on a federal level. The process involves a file review with the state office, performed by a qualified archaeologist. It also comprises reaching out to the community through newspaper notices and reaching out to local governments and tribes for public input to reveal whether anyone has objections or concerns.
The resulting record, known colloquially as the SHPO package, is then submitted to the SHPO, the FCC and the Tribes. This process standardizes the information that is inputted so that the nature of it is the same every time.
“Now, you do have to wait so you have the SHPO package,” said Kimbrough. “But it’s consistent across the board, and so, if you can get that SHPO package done quickly, you actually have an opportunity to drive this timeline much more efficiently than you could before.”
Standardization has had an effect on the ability to accurately forecast the completion of the tribal review process, according to Kimbrough.
“As environmental vendors, we have to deliver on timelines to our clients,” she said. “The timeline can move a little one way or the other, but the ability to say, ‘This is the day it’s going to be done,’ is a big thing.”
The efforts to give the industry faster, streamlined environmental review ran into new challenges when the pandemic began in early 2020. One of those issues involves access to archive records on archaeological sites. Access to some records in Southern California may take from 45 to 60 days.
“Because of COVID, we have largely lost access to these archives, and we have to hire government-approved people to do it,” Geist said. “It is frustrating, because we cannot even start the SHPO or federal process until we get some of those records, and sometimes it’s a significant delay to even start in the process. So the COVID slowdown is real.”
With the onset of COVID and the shocking death rates, several tribes stopped accepting applications, an action that was approved by the FCC. Since then, most of the tribes have begun reviewing applications again.
There were several areas where the pandemic impeded the application process. Travel restrictions kept archaeologists from visiting sites. State agencies were closed. Remote working from the home offered logistical challenges.
“Suddenly, you had hundreds of projects that had to be completed at once, or hundreds of tribes that had to be referred all at once. A lot of clients were upset,” Kimbrough said. “Between the delays caused by COVID and the impact of that backlog on the process, 2020 was a brutal year for tribal consultation.”
Looking forward, Geist said the California SHPO’s approval process could speed up with automation. Currently, the agency accepts hardcopy applications, and it takes the small staff that accepts and reviews the reports between five and 30 days to respond.
“I’ve seen them step up, and they’re starting to give some electronic answers, but traditionally, they would send it by mail and you would wait,” Geist said. “I think if we’re patient, the process will improve with the various SHPOs. A lot of other western state SHPOs are doing a fairly good job with this already, but there’s a lot of catch-up to do.”
Kimbrough noted the importance of submitting information to the various agencies that is as clear and concise as possible, as well as error-free.
“We need to be efficient and put technology in place in order to minimize errors in our reports to make sure that we’re covering all of our bases,” she said. “The other thing is making sure that this is not an antagonistic relationship with the tribes, that we’re working well with them, that we have an open line of communication and that we’re giving them what they need in order to review our application.”