Technology

Want to deploy more broadband? Get the feds out of the way

Despite living in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, millions of Americans lack access to high-speed broadband Internet service. Private companies stand ready to invest resources and deploy the next generation of broadband networks, but many current regulations stand in the way with excessive fees and conditions on broadband providers.

President Trump has made clear he wants to spur investment in critical infrastructure. There already are a few bills in Congress that would support these efforts, like the MOBILE NOW Act‘s proposal to make an additional 255 megahertz of federal and nonfederal spectrum available for mobile and fixed wireless broadband use by the end of 2020.

Yet the most immediate path to expanded high-speed Internet access likely lies with the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering new ways to accelerate broadband deployment through both wireless and wireline telecommunications infrastructure. These efforts include streamlining local permitting and approval processes; pre-empting regulations that pose unreasonable barriers to infrastructure deployment; and developing model codes for state and local governments to promote broadband deployment and competition.

{mosads}When broadband providers want to upgrade their networks or deploy service in a new area, they need access to public rights of way, such as utility poles or conduits. This process is costly and complex because, among other reasons, there typically are other providers with equipment in the same space. These incumbents generally are in no rush to welcome new competition, so getting them to move their equipment and prepare for new deployments (a process called “make-ready work”) frequently will take months.

 

To expedite this, the FCC has proposed “climb once” and “dig once” policies that would give new competitors easier access to utility poles and conduits. Rather than having multiple construction crews climb utility poles one-at-a-time, and or stop traffic multiple times to dig up roads, the broadband provider will coordinate with local government to perform all necessary make-ready work at once. This results in cheaper, speedier deployment and less disruption to public rights of way.

Local governments themselves often serve as impediments to deployment, as well. Though they are entitled to recover the costs incurred in maintaining and administering access to public rights of way, local governments frequently will seek to extract fees that go beyond those costs. They also often will seek to impose onerous conditions, like demanding certain “public interest” concessions, that discourage broadband deployment. These barriers protect incumbents, but harm local consumers by denying them the benefits of faster service and increased competition. The FCC should use its authority to pre-empt these egregious local barriers to deployment. 

Clearing deployment barriers is especially vital for wireless broadband. The rollout of 5G wireless holds the promise of boosting speeds for mobile devices and enabling a universe of new applications, from home broadband service delivered wirelessly to an antenna on the user’s home to various “Internet of things” services, like smart grids and driverless cars.

However, 5G requires many more cell sites than traditional wireless networks, so providers need to deploy hundreds or even thousands of new cell sites in each city. These new cells are smaller and less disruptive than traditional cell towers, so they shouldn’t be held to the same permitting and approval processes. Rather, cities should expedite their processes to approve multiple site applications at once. Treating wireless technology of the future like that of the past will delay deployment and degrade the wireless services available to consumers.

Regulations for accessing public rights of way are often complex, and they vary significantly from city to city. For that reason, the FCC created the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) as a group of experts who can collaborate to resolve disputes and promulgate model codes for state and local governments. While some practices are clearly egregious and should be pre-empted by the FCC, there are many others where a softer touch is needed. The BDAC can play a vital role in those latter areas by developing model policies likely to stimulate broadband deployment and competition.

In the 21st century, broadband infrastructure is at least as important as roads and bridges. To promote economic growth, digital inclusion and a more civil society, we need broadband infrastructure that can connect the unconnected and deliver new opportunities for all Americans. But first, we need public policies that support, rather than inhibit, that deployment.

Tom Struble (@TStruble) is technology policy manager and Joe Kane (@TheJoeKane) is technology policy associate for the R Street Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Broadband Internet Joe Kane

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