The American Broadband Initiative

On February 13 the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross led a group of more than 20 federal agencies in announcing what the administration is calling the American Broadband Initiative (ABI). The stated purpose of this initiative is to promote broadband deployment. This was accompanied by this Milestones Report that lists numerous specific federal initiatives and associated timelines. The stated purpose of the ABI is to streamline the federal permitting process and to leverage federal assets to lower the cost of deploying broadband.

Big announcements of this sort are usually mostly for public relations purposes rather than anything useful, and this is no exception. The main purpose of ABI seems to be to show rural America that the federal government cares about the lack of rural broadband. Unfortunately, this kind of PR effort works, as evidenced by a conversation I had with rural politician soon after the ABI announcement who hoped this would mean real movement towards broadband deployment in his region. I felt bad when I told him that I see nothing new or of consequence in the ABI announcement, and nothing that I thought would improve broadband in his area.

This is not to say that there was nothing of importance in the ABI. However, the most important initiatives included in the ABI are repeats of previous announcements. For example, the leading bullet point in the ABI is the announcement of the $600 million e-connectivity grant/loan program – something that everybody in the industry has known about since last fall. There were a few other repeats of past announcement such as the intention to ease the permitting process on federal land.

A lot of the announcements have to do with the permitting for broadband facilities and access to public land, including:

  • The U.S. Department of Interior will make it’s 7,000+ towers available to carriers and will publish a map. Any tall towers in this list are already included in the FCC tower database.
  • The NTIA is creating a web site that will centralize the information needed to get permits to place telecom assets on public land.
  • The GSA is undertaking an effort to document flow charts of the process required to get a permit for the use of federal land or federal towers.
  • The GSA will also tackle simplifying the permitting application forms.
  • The GSA is soliciting comments from the public to identify areas with poor cellular coverage, with the hope that the GSA can then identify public assets that might help alleviate lack of cellular coverage.

There are a few other announcements that could be beneficial such as streamlining the environmental and historic preservations reviews on public properties. Those requirements are a definite roadblock to using public land, but streamlining is not the same thing as eliminating, so I’d have to see what this means in practice to know if this is an actual improvement.

I have no doubt that these efforts will help a few broadband projects. However, federal lands tend to be lightly populated and I have to wonder how many broadband projects want to use federal lands? In the hundreds of broadband projects I’ve been involved in I can count on one hand the times when federal rights-of-way were an issue.

There is one situation this could be a benefit – the siting of antennas on top of federal buildings. In many small towns the court house is the tallest structure and has largely been unavailable to wireless providers. But until I see this work easily in real life I’m going to remain skeptical.

The ABI report is mostly fluff. It seems obvious that all cabinet agencies were asked to provide a list of ways they can help broadband, and they all scrambled to come up with something to report. While a few of the announced initiatives might help a handful of projects, for the most part the initiatives listed in the ABI aren’t going to help anybody. If the administration really wanted to help brpadband, they can create grant programs that don’t have forced ties to RUS loans than many ISPs can’t accept, or they would eliminate the inane requirement that federal grants can only be used where homes don’t have 10/1 Mbps speeds.

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