The following was co-authored by R Street Outreach Manager Nathan Leamer.
The hardest part of building broadband Internet just might be figuring out how to get more wires into the ground.
In a more perfect world, the best path would be for federal, state and local governments to get out of the way and let private interests figure out how best to make money from building infrastructure. But here in the real world, we live with the legacy of government control of highways and other infrastructure, which are intricately connected with regulation at every level.
Network expansion generally requires wires to be run underground or on poles. To reduce both the cost and disruption, one increasingly popular option is the approach policy mavens dub “dig once.” Under “dig once” initiatives, rather than having to tear up roads every time a company wants to add new wires, cables or fiber, infrastructure planners would require conduits be built large enough so that later providers could draw their wires through those pre-existing conduits.
Which is why this is one of the rare situations in which the federal government could actually help simplify the bureaucratic maze that confronts both existing telecom companies and new market entrants who seek to build out new capacity that would offer broadband Internet service to more Americans. If done correctly, a federal “dig once” initiative could help simplify broadband buildout by mandating that conduit to house underground wires be installed in any roadway construction project that uses federal funds.
The cost of this requirement would be only about 1 percent of federal highway appropriations. Over the long term, according to the Government Accountability Office, the approach saves about 16 percent off construction costs in rural areas, and between one-quarter and one-third of construction costs in urban areas.
Toward this end, Congress should pass H.R. 3805, the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act of 2015, sponsored by Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Greg Walden, R-Ore. It would provide for conduit to be installed under hard surfaces as part of federally funded highway construction projects in any community with an anticipated need for broadband in the next 15 years.
The bill currently has 31 Democratic and 19 Republican cosponsors. Eshoo adds that the bill’s approach effectively already has received White House endorsement. In 2012, President Barack Obama’s Executive Order Accelerating Broadband Infrastructure Deployment called for conduit to be deployed for broadband facilities associated with federal lands.
According to the Federal Highway Administration much of the cost associated with providing broadband service is the initial trench digging. “Dig once” would also mean paying once for the trenches. The initial monies for the trenches would come from federal roadway construction funds but leasing the conduit space to providers could potentially recoup that cost.
Of course, running conduit alone will not actually bring broadband into Americans’ homes. The “last mile” of cable, the part that actually connects homes to the network, will still have to be installed by Internet service providers. But this process would become significantly easier and less costly should the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act come into effect. One also expects increased competition will drive down the cost of broadband, as local service providers are forced to compete with new providers.
The long-term gains stemming from increased nationwide broadband access could also be substantial. In rural and farming communities, broadband access may become essential to modern agriculture, as production technology advances. This could help explain why the Senate version of the bill, S. 2163 (which includes additional provisions about property rights in federal lands) has drawn bipartisan support from states like Minnesota, Montana and Colorado.
“Dig once” is a market-based solution that the president and Congress should pursue to expand and improve broadband infrastructure to reach more Americans in more places.