'Dig once' eyed for broadband expansion

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Members of Congress are eying a possible way to expand the nation’s deployment of broadband Internet.

The so-called “dig once” bill — the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act of 2015 — would mandate that federally funded highway construction projects include the installation of pipes for carrying fiber optic cables, assuming the area in question has a need for broadband within the next 15 years.

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Supporters of the policy say it will save the public money. A 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the installation costs for conduit would likely fall if a federal dig once policy was in place, especially in urban areas where it costs more money to perform construction projects.

“Our information highways today have really become just as important as our interstate highways,” said subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a sponsor of the bill along with subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.). “So, this is a policy, coupled with federal dollars that build federal roads, [that] will also help build out broadband in our country.”

The GAO also identified disadvantages to a federal implementation of the policy, including the risk that the pipes would go unused and a reduction in the amount of funding available for highway construction projects.

The stakes for the legislation are potentially high: the reach and quality of broadband is becoming an economic imperative as Americans increasingly rely on the Internet for everything from watching a movie to accessing medical records.

Industry groups including the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), U.S. Telecom and the American Cable Association say they favor a dig once policy.

“As the nation’s largest wired Internet provider, the cable industry welcomes efforts by policymakers to develop creative solutions that encourage more investment in broadband infrastructure so that we can continue to be a global leader in this important technology,” NCTA said in a statement Thursday.

Eshoo said the plan could help expand broadband connectivity to underserved areas, including rural regions and tribal lands.

“Well, we certainly have a problem of broadband penetration in rural areas,” she said. “So wherever federal dollars are spent in rural areas, this is really going to give them a boost.”

Doug Brake, a telecom analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation who supports the bill, said that while it’s a good step, it doesn’t solve some of the more complicated questions related to broadband deployment.

“It’s a great idea, it’s good common-sense policy — but obviously not a total panacea,” Brake said.

He said that the federal highway projects that the bill would affect don’t always reach the areas where it is most costly to build fiber optic networks.

“Where it gets real expensive is where you get out into the tendrils of the network, and costs go up exponentially as you start trying to lay down the last mile getting into everyone’s home,” he said.

Lawmakers will discuss the dig once bill and other strategies for expanding broadband infrastructure during a hearing Wednesday of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

Some have called for policies that make it easier for companies to place broadband infrastructure on federal lands and buildings. That could include creating uniform contracts and fees for companies hoping to build on the land, Brake said. A dig once bill in the Senate also includes provisions to streamline the process for building on federal land.

Another possible strategy is making it easier for companies to place wireless equipment on utility poles.

The House hearing comes as lawmakers in the Senate conduct their own examination of the broadband space, with a focus on wireless Internet. Earlier this month, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on the obstacles to the deployment of rural broadband.

Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn ThuneGingrich, Christie top Trump’s VP list: report Congress must resolve net neutrality once and for all Facebook offers set of 'Values' to reassure users of neutrality MORE (R-S.D.) said that “the more lasting economic benefits spurred by spectrum availability — new jobs, technological innovation, and increased consumer welfare — depend on spectrum actually being used by individuals across the country.”

“That requires the design, construction, deployment, and maintenance of physical facilities, including towers, antennas, fiber optic cables, and servers,” he said.

The White House says improving broadband penetration should be a priority. A 2012 executive order asked the Department of Transportation to review dig once policies and encourage states to use them. Eshoo said that her bill would give states more of an incentive to follow the policy and effectively implement it.

Though the plan is similar to one that Eshoo released several years ago that never became law, she is optimistic about its chance of passage.

“I think we’re poised to continue to advance it,” she said during an interview Friday. “Because everyone says, ‘Jeez, what I great idea, I wish I’d thought of that.’ ”

“This bill is fun,” she said later. “I see people’s faces when I talk to them about it, and they say, ‘Oh my god, sure, where should I sign on.’ ”

“It has great clarity, it’s highly understandable, it’s beneficial across the broad,” she said. “It’s like lining up five cherries on the machine. It’s a real winner.”