Described as a "shot clock" rule, it establishes a 90-day deadline for deciding if a company can build infrastructure at existing tower locations, and a 150-day limit for new cell tower locations. Once this deadline is reached, the applicants can bring the issue to court for a decision. There is no presumption of approval in court through, the FCC said.
"This action will assist in speeding the deployment of next generation wireless networks while respecting the legitimate concerns of local authorities and preserving local control over zoning and land use policies," the agency said in a statement.
Mobile operators have long complained about the time it takes for approval of new cellular towers. For example, the CTIA told the FCC it has heard of more than 750 applications having to wait more than a year for responses.
During the CTIA tradeshow in October, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said this issue was ripe for action. While the new rule does not go as far as some wanted, it has been met with praise by many in the mobile industry.
"In approving this important reform today, Chairman Genachowski and the commission have provided tremendous support for the effort to bring more mobile broadband to consumers," said AT&T's senior VP Robert Quinn, in a statement.
The move comes as many major cellular operators are looking to deploy 4G networks at a rapid pace. Sprint Nextel and Clearwire are already delivering 6 Mbps to mobile users with their WiMax network, and Verizon Wireless plans to have up to 30 markets blanketed with its Long-Term Evolution network by the end of 2010.