NATOA Report Spotlights Small Cell Preemption’s Financial Burden on Cities

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, March 22, 2021

CONTACT: Zoe PiSierra,, 603.339.0042

83% of mid-size localities and 63% of large localities report increased expenses due to small cell preemption, according to NATOA’s survey of 48 local governments.

Under Democratic leadership, FCC faces renewed calls from NATOA, CWA and local officials to put power back in the hands of local governments.


NATIONWIDE -- A new report released today from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), with assistance from Communication Workers of America (CWA), spotlights the widespread harms of small cell preemption to cities, local governments and millions of low-income Americans nationwide who continue to lack broadband connectivity. The report, “Stretched Thin and Feeling the Squeeze: The Harmful Effects of Small Cell Preemption on Local Governments,” comes as the Federal Communications Commission gains Democratic leadership under newly appointed Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel.

Drawing on a survey of 48 local governments, the report finds that small cell preemption is having a negative impact on cities’ finances, creating challenges for public safety and hampering efforts to close the digital divide. These localities range in population from under 5,000 to over 500,000 and represent regions from the middle of the country to the coasts. 


  • 40% of all localities report that preemption has resulted in a loss in revenue, including 56% of large localities.
  • 83% of mid-size localities and 63% of large localities report increased staffing expenses.
  • 57% report that providers have failed to restore roads, sidewalks, or other infrastructure to its original condition following installation at least once, including 38% that report it has happened multiple times.
  • 52% report that companies have damaged public property at least once, including 31% that report it has happened multiple times.
  • 56% of large localities report that if it weren’t for preemption, they would be pursuing digital divide initiatives that they currently are not. 
  • 40% report that installations have created accessibility issues at least once, and 33% report that they have had installations that endanger the public. 
  • 44% report that broadband and small cell companies have installed equipment without a permit.
  • 38% of all localities and 50% of large localities have dealt with contractors lacking the proper licenses.
  • 71% of localities have received complaints from residents about radio frequency (RF) emissions.
  • 38% report receiving complaints from residents about installation issues on multiple occasions.


More key findings can be found in the report.

“In addition to putting a massive financial burden on local governments, due in part to increased staffing expenses, damage to public property, and legal attacks from providers, the FCC’s 2018 small cell preemption order is putting the public in harm’s way,” said Nancy Werner, NATOA General Counsel. “Local governments should be managing the public’s right-of-way, not the telecom industry. The rush to deploy as quickly as possible cannot be at the expense of public safety or other infrastructure that shares finite space in the right-of-way. Local governments must have the power to manage deployment properly to protect our communities and ensure equitable broadband deployment.”

Damage to public property during broadband installation leads to increased financial costs for cities, and the cause is often the telecom industry’s highly subcontracted workforce. Providers will subcontract the work to one firm that can then contract to a second firm and even a third firm. These arrangements create accountability challenges and make it increasingly difficult for cities to hold companies accountable for property damage, failed installations and ineffective deployment. Fifty-two percent of local governments surveyed report that telecom providers have damaged public property at least once while fifty-seven percent reported providers failed to restore damaged roads, sidewalks, or other infrastructure to its original condition following installation.

“In Austin, we want the best for our communities, and while that does include strong broadband services, it also means safe streets, good infrastructure, and equal access to essential resources like internet,” said Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin, Texas. “But small cell preemption makes it virtually impossible for the City of Austin to ensure the necessary resources and protections for all Austinites.”

In an effort to put small cell preemption back in the hands of localities and bridge the growing digital divide, NATOA, CWA and local officials are calling for the FCC to 1) abandon the approach of the Small Cell Order and its ill-conceived fee caps and support the role of local governments in facilitating safe deployment in the public interest; 2) shift the burden of proof back to the provider when a provider alleges local government actions violate federal law; and 3) provide more resources to local governments on RF emissions.

“One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans, overwhelmingly in low-income neighborhoods, continue to lack basic high-speed internet, preventing them from accessing remote work, online schooling, and necessary connectivity with family and friends,” said Ceilidh Gao, CWA Staff Attorney. “Internet access is no longer optional. It needs to be a priority. That’s why we need to put the power back in the hands of local governments: to curb digital redlining, pursue innovative digital inclusion efforts and ensure connectivity for the communities that need it most.”

Read the full report.