The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on the ability of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other federal agencies to determine the scope of their own jurisdiction.  Generally, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Chevron USA v. NRDC, courts must defer to agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous statutes within the agencies’ respective areas of regulation.  In City of Arlington v. FCC, the Supreme Court will determine whether courts must apply this same deference to agencies’ interpretations of statutory provisions governing their own authority. 

In the case before the Court, the city of Arlington, Texas, and others are challenging the FCC’s decision to establish “presumptively reasonable” deadlines (called a “shot clock”) for state and local actions on zoning applications regarding the placement, construction, and modification of wireless facilities such as cell towers.  The appellate court determined that the Communications Act was ambiguous as to whether the FCC had the authority to establish the shot clock, and it deferred to what it deemed to be the FCC’s reasonable interpretation that it possessed the necessary authority.  The petitioners asked the Supreme Court to take the case because lower courts are divided as to whether agencies are owed such deference and because, in their view, the court below reached the wrong decision.  

The Supreme Court’s decision will have broad implications for general administrative law and the separation of powers among federal branches.  However, it will have special resonance in the communications world.  The wireless industry argues that the reversal of the FCC’s decision would allow state and local governments to take indefinite periods of time to approve or deny applications to site wireless facilities, thereby hindering efforts to ensure that current and next generation networks have the capacity to handle growing wireless broadband traffic due to increased adoption rates of smartphones, tables and other devices.