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States Target the Paperwork That Slows Broadband Expansion

Permitting obstacles too often slow deployment of federal infrastructure dollars.

(The Pew Charitable Trusts)
As policymakers in the nation’s states and territories explore how best to spend billions of dollars in federal infrastructure money intended to expand access to broadband, a key focus has been on how to avoid a host of potential obstacles that can impede or thwart their progress.

Throughout 2023, their broadband offices undertook a systematic planning process to prepare for a $42.45 billion infusion from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program and $2.75 billion from the Digital Equity Act (DEA) program, both part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) enacted in late 2021. In their outreach, broadband office representatives met with thousands of communities and stakeholders to identify their connectivity needs and to map existing assets—including their physical networks and their partner organizations. Each jurisdiction then developed its own comprehensive five-year action plan and an interconnected digital equity plan.

As part of that process, each office compiled a list of potential barriers that could impede their implementation of the newly available funds or that could undercut their goals to increase internet access, adoption, and affordability. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative has reviewed all available plans and compared the barriers identified by state offices during this planning process.

Critically, stakeholders in a majority of states repeatedly raised the same key issues. Those included concerns over the supply chain of materials to build networks, the availability of trained workers, and the capacity for organizations, small providers, and local governments to engage with complicated federal programs. One issue, however, was mentioned in virtually every plan, the perennial asterisk on every infrastructure project’s timeline: cumbersome permitting processes.

Permitting Against the Clock

With the infrastructure law requiring BEAD-funded projects to connect every currently unserved home and business in the country and complete construction within four years, the risk of permitting delays looms over state and territory plans for broadband deployment. Although permitting challenges are not new in the broadband world, the scale of BEAD and its unique federal requirements pose new hurdles.

The issues range from the overarching complexity of projects that cut across multiple jurisdictions to the individual, procedural hurdles at each step of the process that can stress the capacity of applicants and regulatory staff. Specifically, broadband offices repeatedly elevated:

  • The potential for delays in the negotiating process between owners of utility poles and providers that want to attach lines (also referred to as pole attachments) and when navigating railroad crossings.
  • The capacity of each state or territory’s “call before you dig” systems (also known as colocation services), which are essential for identifying underground lines before digging.
  • And the variances in administrative processes at local levels when constructing in rights-of-way.

“BEAD represents an unprecedented public sector investment in broadband infrastructure, and state and local governments may need to prepare for significantly higher rates of permitting requests in the implementation phase of deployment,” wrote the authors of the New Jersey five-year action plan. “BEAD is also taking place in the midst of an historic investment across multiple types of infrastructure … which may create more pressure on local and state permitting offices.”

The Arizona broadband office echoed this sentiment, specifically, anticipating that existing staffing levels may not be sufficient to process the rise in requests for utility pole attachments from BEAD projects. In an attempt to mitigate delays, several state broadband offices (including Alaska, Kentucky, and New Mexico) have added new permitting coordinator positions to their staffing plans.

Beyond general administrative capacity, internet service providers and public officials frequently cite the lack of consistency in permitting processes across local jurisdictions. For example, Michigan’s plan details how a lack of standardized requirements can lead to confusion in the application process, as inconsistencies in permitting fees and timelines differ among the “sometimes-overlapping permitting authorities.” The Michigan Infrastructure Office is working to address these issues at a statewide level by implementing a streamlined permitting process for larger projects, coordinating the various state agencies involved, and creating a public permitting dashboard to track progress and timelines. In addition, the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office said that it will work with relevant agencies to shepherd BEAD projects through their respective processes.

State Lawmakers Aim to Resolve Permitting Inconsistencies

State legislatures have also sought solutions to permitting issues. Although the full complexity of the process for infrastructure projects cannot realistically be addressed by any single jurisdiction, important bills were signed in the past year to focus on the problem and address some frequent causes of delays.

In 2023, for example, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt (R) signed House Bill 1695. The law allows existing agreements that grant electric utilities access to land (i.e., easements), or access to attach a power line to a pole, to also be applied to the installation of broadband service, instead of requiring that provider restart the process for the same pole or right-of-way that it already has permission to construct and operate on.

Continuing an effort that began in 2015 to modernize the pole attachment rules in Maine, the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) passed rules in 2023 that require broadband providers and the three largest pole owners in the state to participate in a shared database of poles to ease the attachment process. Maine Governor Janet Mills (D) also signed into law Legislative Document 1456, which requires the PUC and the broadband office to study how to promote municipal broadband expansion through a “limited-period reduction in utility pole attachment rates.” The measure also requires the commission to examine the average time it takes for pole owners to approve new attachments, assess how many poles currently comply with state laws, and analyze current enforcement practices.

Addressing the permitting process for broadband networks is just one of the many policy issues that will affect the deployment of IIJA funding, but legislative and rulemaking efforts similar to those in Oklahoma and Maine are underway nationwide. In 2023, 45 state legislatures passed 170 bills directly related to broadband policy. As broadband offices begin selecting which networks proposals will receive BEAD funding and awarding digital equity grants throughout 2024, legislatures have an opportunity to further address the barriers identified by their broadband offices. Each state and territory’s five-year action and digital equity plans offers a roadmap of what it will take to achieve a more universally connected future for all of their residents.

This article was first published by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Read the original article.
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