House Subcommittee OKs Broadband-Boosting Bills

In what was close to a bipartisan lovefest, the House Communications Subcommittee Wednesday favorably, and unanimously, reported to the full Energy & Commerce Committee for consideration two bills (actually one was billed as a discussion draft) that would boost broadband deployment and help free up government spectrum for commercial broadband use.

There could still be a little work to do on issues involving utility pole access and deployment to tribal lands, but on balance the bills drew applause and backslaps from both sides.

Reported favorably to the full committee were H.R. 1641, the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act of 2015, and a discussion draft on measures to speed facilities deployment.

H.R. 1641 would incentivize federal agencies to give up or share spectrum by giving them a share of the proceeds from a federal spectrum auction. It would build on a federal spectrum incentive bill incorporated into an omnibus budget bill that passed in October.

The discussion draft includes a number of measures to speed infrastructure deployment, including use of utility poles for broadband, streamlining citing and application processing, and creating a federal inventory of where "fiber can be hung, antennas can be attached, or wires can be trenched," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chair of the Subcommittee.

The package is the handiwork of full committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), ranking member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), Walden, and subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and combines six proposals the committee had looked at in an October hearing.

"The legislation contains commonsense proposals for time limits, application tracking, and uniformity of procedures across the various agencies and field offices scattered across our nation. The legislation requires agencies to be accountable for the efficiency with which they process permitting applications," said Walden.

The draft incorporates H.R. 3805, the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act (or "dig once") which requires highways using federal funds to also deploy broadband conduit if it is determined there will be a need for it. Walden also said that after the full committee and House had passed the bill, of which he seemed confident, they would "march en masse" to the Senate and get them to act as well.

The only two cautionary notes were sounded by Walden and Rep. Ben Luján (D-N.M.). Luján said he had some concerns about deployment to tribal lands and issues with liability that might limit those deployments.  The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC)— Luján is a former NARUC member—had recommended that there be an evaluation of easements and rights of way when working with federal, state and local governments, and said he hoped that might be added down the line.

Walden said electric utilities had "significant concerns" about the changes to pole attachments, but pointed out it was only a draft, that staffers were working to address those concerns as the bill moved to full committee, and assured them in his opening statement that boosting broadband "should not come at a cost to electric utilities ratepayers."

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.