Barriers to Broadband Deployment on Federal Lands

Road through parkCenturyLink’s VP of Regulatory Affairs, Jeb Benedict testified recently at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that there are a number of barriers to rural broadband deployment when a fiber needs to pass though federal or tribal land. He said that CenturyLink would support legislation that would do the following:

  • Require that federal agencies give priority to rights-of-way applications and establish time frames in which they must respond to applications to build broadband.
  • Make it easier to put fiber into areas that were previously disturbed like the shoulder of a roadway.
  • Minimize or even eliminate permitting fees and leases for rights-of-way for fiber projects.
  • Require federal agencies to work together when necessary for fiber projects.

CenturyLink is right about all of these items and I’ve seen projects get bogged down over these issues many times. For example, the process and paperwork required to build fiber through federal park land can be gruesome and time consuming. There are different processes to follow for different kinds of federal land and so the process differs depending upon whether something is a national park, a national forest, or just general federal land. And there are often numerous barriers for getting fiber through tribal lands as well.

What I’ve always found mystifying is that building on park land always treats each new application like it is the first time that telecom is being built there. It’s no easier to put fiber where copper has been run before and you have to start from scratch. What is particularly frustrating is that, as Mr. Benedict pointed out, a lot of hoops have to be jumped through to build into the rights-of-ways or roads where the dirt was dug up already while constructing the road. There are often environmental and archaeological studies required to bury conduit in these rights-of-ways that have clearly already been fully excavated in the past when building the road.

National Parks are the hardest places to build. I have a client who found grant money to bring wireless service to the Channel Islands off San Diego, much of which is a national park. The area had cellular coverage in the past but the carriers were removing the cell towers which means that the islands would be cut off from communications. The park wanted basic services like the ability of park visitors to call 911 and wanted data for the park rangers and a few others who still live on the islands.

But the barriers to building there were so stringent that the project could never be made to work. The park wouldn’t allow the construction of any new buildings or enclosures of any kind. They would not allow any dirt on the islands to be disturbed, meaning no digging of any kind. And there were incredibly expensive environmental studies required that I recall cost $150,000. Even though the people that worked at the park wanted new wireless service, and even though there would be great public benefit, the national park service rules basically made it impossible to install telecom gear.

And I have similar stories from all over the country. Trying to get fiber through national forests is almost as hard as national parks. Applications to build can be delayed for seemingly forever. There are usually environmental studies to be done even to build in existing rights-of-ways on existing roads, and there are numerous rules about how and when construction can be done. I’ve seen companies route fiber many miles out of the best path just to avoid the hassle of building through the federal land.

The problem is that these federal lands are often surrounded by rural communities that badly need broadband. But it’s hard to build fiber, cellular towers, or any kind of infrastructure if the parkland creates a barrier for reaching the areas with fiber.

It’s not just parklands that are a problem. Just trying to build under an interstate highway overpass or across a federal bridge can also be a very slow process. And those are found everywhere. As CenturyLink points out, there is no requirement that the agencies involved look at such requests in a timely manner. Sometimes such requests get processed quickly and sometimes they languish for a very long time.

If the federal government really wants to promote more rural fiber then they need to eliminate the barriers that they have created for their own lands, highways, and bridges.

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