House Preps Raft of Broadband-Boosting Drafts

The House Communications Subcommittee spent over two hours Wednesday going over myriad legislative proposals to remove barriers to broadband infrastructure deployment, including streamlining permitting, making it easier to string wires on polls—by extending mandatory access provisions of telecom law to access to poles on federal lands—"dig once" mandates, and much more. 

That came a day after the same, divided, subcommittee had heard testimony that Title II reclassification was one of those barriers.

But Wednesday's hearing was all about a raft of bipartisan draft bills that have been introduced to help boost infrastructure buildouts and lower cost of deployment.

They include a pole attachments bill discussion draft, H.R. 3805, the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act of 2015, a "dig once" bill to insure fiber conduit gets deployed whenever roads are built with federal funds, a Historical Review of Broadband Facilities Discussion Draft, an Agencies Locate Broadband Facilities Discussion Draft, a GSA Deadlines Discussion Draft, and an Inventory of Federal Assets Discussion Draft.

Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) suggested the bills could still use improvement, but that they were bipartisan proposals that could help boost infrastructure deployment by cutting down on "uncertainty and delay." That includes by requiring a government database of federal infrastructure assets, and requiring access to poles on federal lands at a statutorily regulated rate.

The FCC under chairman Tom Wheeler has taken steps to streamlining tower citing and permitting and put shot clocks on those decisions, but the committee clearly sees more it can do to help speed that plow.

Walden said networks were racing to meet the "tidal waves" of consumption, including streaming video and wearables.

Together, the bills are "intended to improve and streamlining government processes," said ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), at the hearing. She called them all "really terrific ideas," and pushed for packaging them together and passing them as one bill.

She said collectively, the bills "would put a dent in the problem that we have." Eshoo and Walden were co-sponsors for the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act, which would require the laying of conduit along roads where there is a demonstrated need for broadband within the next 15 years.

Jeb Benedict, VP at CenturyLink, who was a witness at the hearing, praised the "conduit" act. He told the committee that it should consider steps to reduce permitting delays, including by prioritizing those applications over others just as electric utilities receive priority. He said Congress should "consider steps that minimize or eliminate federal permitting fees or lease rental for broadband facilities." Every dollar spent on rights of ways is not being spent on plant, he pointed out.

He also said environmental impact studies could be streamlined in previously disturbed areas so they don't unnecessarily delay deployment.

Asked by House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) what lessons had been learned from Google Fiber's buildout—some ISPs have been critical of the incentives cities have offered Google—Deb Socia of Next Century Cities said one of the takeaways was "competition is great." She said that when Google came in the prices went down, speeds went up, and said that the changes the cities made to support Google, they then "offered to all providers."

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) registered some concern about the draft bills. He said he was a market person who believed incentives were better than federal mandates. He said he understood there were citing problems on federal lands, but asked whether problems were from dealing with federal lands and facilities, or were there were broader problems in the private sector.

Benedict said the principal "frustrations" were not with state or private landholders, and the concern was not with the result, but the delays in the process.

The other panelists agreed that the feds were the primary problem.

Barton said he was still troubled that the committee was beginning to take the position that access to wireless services is an entitlement, relating it to a McDonald's on every corner, and saying the marketplace should decide where broadband was deployed.

He suggested it was not "correct" to suggest that the most rural communities should have the same access as downtown New York unless the marketplace provided it.

He said he was generally supportive of the bills that dealt with federal lands, but wanted to "tread lightly" in this area.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) countered that it was not an issue of entitlement, but of connectivity, which he said was vital for public safety, particularly as copper plant was being abandoned. He suggested that if someone could get on a plane and stay connected flying over the country, there should be a way to get it to the rural areas being flown over.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.