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Americans Need Better Internet. States Can Help Pave the Way.

Lawmakers should ensure that cumbersome state and local regulations and review processes don't prevent providers from building out and upgrading the infrastructure that high-speed, reliable connectivity requires.

The Internet has allowed Americans across the country to stay connected during the pandemic. But if you have a slow or unreliable broadband connection, you may find yourself quickly falling behind. Unfortunately, many states and localities simply don't have the right infrastructure in place to provide good, reliable service, and their own laws and regulations too often impose unnecessary obstacles to telecommunications providers' efforts to build the networks Americans need.

To keep up, states must act to make it easier for providers to build out and upgrade the physical infrastructure that carries broadband to our homes and places of work. Costs are certainly part of the problem: It's expensive for providers to string wires and dig up the ground to bury cable. That's true as well for mobile providers as they deploy 5G networks, which offer high-speed, low-latency connectivity and promise to add 4.5 million jobs and $1.5 trillion in economic growth. However, in many states the installation of these networks requires a cumbersome review process — one that can vary from locality to locality.

The federal government has taken some steps to streamline these processes. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for example, has revisited many collocation and access-to-right-of-way review processes, as well as reforms to federal review under the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. These important steps have led to significant benefits, but they are not all-encompassing.

First, these FCC actions apply only to the deployment of small wireless facilities. This makes some sense as the regulations and processes that cover these facilities were clearly outdated. However, small wireless facilities contribute only a portion of our broadband future. Cable and fiber Internet providers need to string wires or dig up ground to install the physical infrastructure. And second, these are simply regulations, so they are always subject to revision. The FCC could decide to reverse course with the new administration and begin to peel back some of these vital reforms.

That is why state and local governments must also work to streamline these processes, reducing the uncertainty and inconsistencies that many providers still face in the infrastructure deployment process. And while many localities do a fantastic job managing the public rights of way, others impose artificial fees and regulatory delays. In Maryland, for example, Howard County charges an annual recurring fee of $25,000 for access to rights of way, adjoining Montgomery County can charge an access fee of five percent of gross revenue, and the city of Baltimore demands annual recurring fees of up to $5,000 per pole. In isolation, these excessive fees inhibit deployment, but the varying policies and regulations add further challenge for providers.

Therefore, it is critical for states to enact legislation that establishes procedures and fees for providers that are uniform across each state's landscape and remove unnecessary local impediments. Lawmakers across the country could look to states like Arizona, which placed a hard cap for access to rights of way of only $50 for small cells, has cost-based fees for all telecom construction permitting and limits fees on the franchise application process. These reforms apply to every locality in the state, meaning providers must only comply with one set of procedures. Unsurprisingly, Arizona saw immediate benefits, with providers choosing Phoenix as one of the initial cities to see 5G deployment.

As state lawmakers begin to consider changes, R Street's annual broadband scorecard offers a comparative look at every state's existing laws and highlights areas for improvement. No two states face the exact same challenges or have the same regulatory environment, and legislators will need to consider existing laws and the specific needs of their constituents carefully.

To be clear, these state-level reforms would not by themselves result in universal coverage. Even reducing regulatory barriers will not make certain communities profitable for providers to deploy the needed infrastructure. This, combined with the increased focus on broadband connectivity as a result of the pandemic, drove many states to look to subsidies this past year rather than regulatory reforms. To maximize the value of these funds, however, states should ensure that the review of applications and managing rights of way do not impose artificial barriers, ensuring that most of each dollar spent goes to the infrastructure itself.

Americans need advanced connectivity more than ever as they work and learn from home. To meet that need, local deployment review can't stand in the way. We need to get the right policies in place to make this future a reality.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A resident fellow in the R Street Institute's Technology and Innovation Policy Program
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