The ‘Dig Once’ bill could bring better broadband to rural areas

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Telephone and cable companies are routinely slammed for being slow to build infrastructure in rural areas. Critics wrongly attribute delays to “market failure,” claiming that because rural service yields low profits, carriers simply aren’t interested. This reasoning is used to justify expensive and often opaque subsidy schemes for rural phone companies, or worse, multimillion dollar municipal broadband projects that fall short of goals and land cities deep in debt.

Rural-broadband investment is more likely to get a boost if the regulations on rights of way were reviewed and streamlined. That’s the point of the Broadband Conduit Act of 2017, nicknamed the “Dig Once” bill, which aims to create a standardized, economical process to facilitate right-of-way access for broadband construction along federal highways. The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will hold a hearing on the draft bill Tuesday.

Ironically, it’s been those other attempts at rural-broadband development that have called attention to the need for deregulation. When others have tried to build out in rural areas, they have encountered the same high costs and bureaucracy that slow the process of digging trenches, accessing utility poles and siting towers. It’s one reason Google Fiber, which hoped to deliver fiber-based broadband to selected areas, shifted to wireless.

Municipal broadband projects, ill-conceived as they are, have run into the same issues. When local laws prevent them from circumventing the right-of-way and pole-access costs they impose on their incumbent competition, they usually find it just as cost prohibitive to build as the private sector does.

While not a complete solution, the Dig Once bill is a step in the right direction. It is inspired by number of successful state programs that give broadband providers an opportunity to share conduit installed during highway construction or renovation. All service providers would be offered access under standardized terms. Service providers still pay their way, but since one dig covers all, the costs are far less than the $27,000 per-mile average for fiber deployment estimated by the Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office.

Of course, federal deregulation can only go so far. State and local governments arguably exert more influence over the cost of broadband deployment. One hopes that a bipartisan congressional effort encourages states and municipalities to review their own rules.

For example, in many areas pole-attachment lease rates are still regulated according to the company’s legacy category. Rates for telephone companies are four to five times higher than for cable companies despite the fact that, in today’s market, they compete head-to-head offering the same services. The Federal Communications Commission’s 2010 National Broadband Plan encouraged utility companies to make pole-attachment fees “competitively neutral” between phone and cable companies.

Tower-siting delays also present a problem to deployment, especially now that wireless broadband is functionally competitive with wireline speeds. Communities have the right to be heard on siting decisions, but when communities and service providers reach an agreement, the outcome should be respected by all. The primary obstacle to wireless tower siting is not the permit or public hearing process itself, but the power wielded by minority groups of intransigent opponents, who can delay approvals indefinitely by filing an endless series of petitions and protests.

Most reform efforts are aimed at eliminating these tactical bureaucratic delays, setting 150-day or 180-day “shot clocks”—deadlines for local agencies to approve or deny an application. They also hasten approval of site modifications and waive rehearings if a proposed change would make no difference to the appearance, height or design of a tower or antenna.

Efforts to tear down regulatory barriers to broadband go back to the Clinton administration. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama each issued their share of executive orders and memoranda, forming committees and working groups on the subject. Until now, it’s mostly been talk. Dig Once promises long-awaited action and deserves wide congressional support.


Image by Mariusz Szczygiel

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