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INTRODUCTION & SUMMARY

Applications and devices that utilize broadband Internet access services are now integral parts of American life. Yet this unprecedented connectivity we’re experiencing would be impossible without the trillions of dollars that have been spent deploying the underlying broadband infrastructure, including wires, cables, antennas and support structures. Still, high-speed broadband service has yet to reach many Americans, and users’ needs will continue to evolve as new technologies and services become available. Policymakers should therefore do everything within their power to lower barriers to infrastructure deployment, thereby ensuring that the broadband service of the future will be faster, more widely available and more competitive than ever before.

Deploying and operating broadband infrastructure is difficult and expensive. But in addition to the technological and economic barriers to updating and expanding broadband service, those wishing to deploy new broadband infrastructure must also navigate multiple regulatory barriers imposed by government. Much of broadband deployment is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but state and local governments play a major role as well. From right-of-way access and zoning to construction permits and franchising, state and local barriers to infrastructure deployment can have a major impact on Americans’ access to broadband.

In 2018, the R Street Institute released its first Broadband Scorecard, which ranked every state according to how well their laws govern the various aspects of broadband deployment. When state laws provide a uniform and streamlined process for deployment, deployment becomes easier and those states earn a higher grade. While some states did very well, no state received a perfect score.

This report updates the 2018 Broadband Scorecard data to incorporate legislative changes made across the country in 2019.1 Most notably, states continued to pass small cell legislation, opening up public rights of way to deployment of new wireless facilities. Because 5G broadband service requires a dense network of small cells in addition to traditional large wireless towers, these bills look to alleviate the burden by updating the permitting and zoning requirements that were designed for an earlier era.

But small cells and the structures that support them are only a part of the process. Wireline deployment of coaxial and fiber-optic cables remains vital for both providing home internet service and backhaul for wireless networks, and states can help expedite that process, too. For example, in 2019 Texas passed a dig-once law that requires governmental bodies to notify broadband providers of any joint-trenching opportunities, which reduces both the cost and timeline for construction by limiting the number of times the ground must be disturbed in order to deploy new infrastructure.

Most every state that passed a broadband law in 2019 improved their score, but not all new broadband laws are actually good policy. For example, giving electric utilities or municipal cooperatives permission to deploy broadband infrastructure can be good, but if that permission allows them to exclude competitors and deny access to public rights of way, that will hurt competition and diminish broadband service over the long run. Therefore, while most states received at least the same base score as they did in the 2018 scorecard, some states actually lost points in certain categories. These changes are all included in the provided data sheet, and our scoring methodology can be found below.

METHODOLOGY

This scorecard examines laws that govern broadband infrastructure deployment in all 50 states and compiles these data into categories. In some categories, states were given points based on whether they had a law governing a specific aspect of broadband deployment. In categories that included costs or timelines, states were given points based on whether the cost or timeline provided in their law met a certain threshold. For example, a state may get one point for imposing a fee cap on permit applications, and a second point if the cap is $100 or less.

In the absence of a law in a category we considered, no points were awarded for that category. While regulators at the federal, state and local levels all work hard to promote broadband deployment, the broadband future should not rely solely on the discretion of bureaucrats. Good rules should be codified into law, because only laws can provide the long-term certainty needed to incentivize widescale deployment of broadband infrastructure. As such, we did not include any regulations in our analysis, including federal regulations issued by the FCC.

Although conflicting state or local regulations are preempted under the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, states should strive to do better by going above and beyond what federal regulations require. For example, fees on video franchises and some construction permits are capped by FCC regulations, but these are just a baseline. To be true leaders in broadband deployment, states should make their approval processes as efficient and streamlined as possible while still covering their costs and protecting their local citizens.

Read the full report here.

Press release: R Street Institute Releases 2019 Broadband Scorecard Report