On October 28, 2015, the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology within the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing titled “Breaking Down Barriers to Broadband Infrastructure Deployment.” The hearing focused on six different proposals, which are all summarized in the hearing’s background memo. These six drafts represent a positive step towards reducing regulatory barriers and incentivizing more broadband deployment.
One of the big issues that is addressed in several of the discussion drafts is the costly approval process of deploying broadband infrastructure on federal land. Scott Bergmann, VP of Regulatory Affairs at CTIA - The Wireless Association, said in his written testimony that 28 percent of land in the United States is held by the federal government, along with thousands of federal buildings across the country. But he said the approval process to install broadband infrastructure on federal property can take many years.
Chairman Walden gave an example from his district. The town of Mitchell, Oregon has waited two and a half years for permission from the Bureau of Land Management to deploy four power poles so the town can have three-phase electric power. If it takes that long for permission to build electrical infrastructure, it probably takes even longer for permission to build broadband infrastructure.
While the draft legislation would help streamline federal permitting processes, it would not implement a “shot clock” for the review process. Mr. Bergmann said that this simple change would streamline deployment tremendously and has helped broadband providers at local levels. In 2009, the FCC initiated rules which require municipalities to respond to broadband deployment applications within 90 or 150 days, depending on the type of request. In 2012 as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, Congress required states and municipalities to allow any “modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station.”
Mr. Bergmann asked Congress to adopt legislation that would create deadlines for federal agencies to respond to requests to deploy on federal lands, buildings, or other properties. Sometimes the only way to reach rural consumers is through federal property. Without undermining national security or other important federal projects, this small change would have very large effects. Not only would this increase revenue for the federal government because providers would pay for access, but it would increase the quality of Internet access for military bases, tribal lands, and other remote areas.
Mr. Bergmann stated that “sound infrastructure policy is a necessary complement to good spectrum policy.” Of course, more spectrum is needed in order to keep up with projected mobile demand. But, in the meantime, reducing infrastructure barriers is a technology-neutral government action. Implementing a “dig once” policy (proposed in one piece of draft legislation) would lower the construction costs of broadband deployment for all broadband technologies, and implementing a shot clock for federal agencies would lower administrative costs, helping wireless and wireline providers reach underserved areas.In general, it is an important and positive step to see draft legislation that would reduce infrastructure barriers because such legislation would avail resources that providers can use to better serve consumers.