NLC REPORT: NLC Develops Small Cell Wireless Municipal Action Guide

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

This fall the National League of Cities (NLC) released a new Small Cell Wireless Municipal Action Guide and model ordinance for municipal officials.

Small cell wireless infrastructure, which is increasingly important for wireless broadband deployment, has traditionally been guided by federal and industry interests, as opposed to local needs. In addressing the Model Ordinance developed jointly by the NLC and National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the NLC offered added insight for cities. In a summary, it noted that there is no single model code that will work for every jurisdiction. As such, NLC and NATOA’s model code is intended as a roadmap to assist local governments in adopting their own ordinances governing use of the rights of way by communications providers. While example language is included in some sections, we do not intend to suggest these examples could work for every jurisdiction.

The “race to 5G” and small cell wireless infrastructure deployment present new challenges and opportunities for cities and towns. Unlike traditional cellular equipment which is placed high up on single cell towers, small cell technology requires many equipment installations clustered closely together. Municipalities must balance the business interests of wireless providers eager to densify their networks with the management of increasingly crowded city streets and sidewalks.

In its guide summary, NLC noted that cities and towns also face the threat of increasing preemption of their traditional authority from state and federal policies. Several states have recently passed legislation that severely limits what cities may charge for private sector use of public streets. The Federal Communications Commission and Congress are considering policy changes that would impose new unfunded mandates on municipalities in the form of radically shortened application timelines and additional limits on rental rates. This guide serves to explain small cell infrastructure and related policy issues in clear terms so that city and town leaders can thoughtfully plan for small cell deployments in their communities.

Recommendations for municipal leaders, as noted in the 20-page guide, include:

• Gaining a full understanding of the technology and important safety considerations.

• Articulating priorities for accommodating this technology.

• Creating clear policies for permit review that let both city staff and industry applicants know the expectations.

• Developing a template right-of-way access policy/ agreement, as well as a pole attachment agreement.

• Thinking through in advance any beneficial items the city/town could negotiate with industry in exchange for use of the right-of-way – if allowed by state law.

• Giving careful consideration to fee structures

For more information about small cell wireless technology, please visit NLC’s website at

Action Guide:   

Model Ordinance: