Reducing Construction Barriers

One of the most interesting sections of the BEAD NOFO requires that states must define how they are going to make it easier for grant recipients to implement broadband solutions. Specifically, the BEAD NOFO requires states to try to “reduce costs and barriers to deployment, promote the use of existing infrastructure, promote and adopt dig-once policies, streamlined permitting processes and cost-effective access to poles, conduits, easements, and rights of way, including the imposition of reasonable access requirements.

These are all great ideas, but I have to wonder if whoever wrote that understands how hard it is for a state to change any of these policies. Certainly, there is no state broadband grant office with the power to effectuate any of these changes – is this section of the NOFO aimed at legislatures?

Some states have wrestled with these issues for many years. Consider pole attachment and issues related to streamlining the process of building fiber on poles. At my last count, twenty states have adopted their own state rules for the processes related to pole attachments.

I have been involved in several state proceedings looking at pole attachment issues, and this is not something that any state can change quickly. Changing any of the rules associated with pole attachments means opening a docket and soliciting ideas from the parties involved. Since most poles are owned by electric companies, any proceeding brings in the full lobbying power of the electric companies to not do anything rash. It’s also debatable if a state can implement a radical pole attachment rule that is too far out of bounds with FCC rules – since the FCC requires state rules to still adhere to many FCC standards.

For the FCC to consider changing pole attachment rules would take even longer. The FCC has tackled this a few times, and as you might imagine, looking at this issue from a national perspective is hard since pole attachment issues vary widely by locality. The biggest issue with changing pole attachment rules is the lobbying power of the other parties that use the pole – the telcos and cable companies. While they build a lot of fiber, they don’t want to see it be easier for their competition to build fiber.

It’s hard to imagine finding a way to universally streamline permitting in a state. It’s easy to understand why fiber builders don’t like the hodgepodge of permitting rules since every local jurisdiction has its own set of permitting rules and processes. But there is probably not a lot of interest by ISPs to let a State set universal permitting rules – in many states, the permitting rules for building along state highways are some of the most onerous, costly, and time-consuming. I also doubt that many states could declare jurisdiction over permitting since most state constitutions grant authority over local infrastructure to local governments.

The one change on the NTIA list that would have the most impact would be a requirement to make it easy to use existing infrastructure. There are existing fibers running through almost every rural county that is off-limits to anybody that wants to build last-mile fiber. It’s owned by telcos, cable companies, cellular carriers, and electric utilities – and all would fight tooth and nail against having a mandate to give access to their spare fibers. There is also a lot of fiber owned by state governments, local governments, and school boards. Interestingly, in most states, the legislatures have put these government-owned fibers off-limits for commercial purposes – all due to the lobbying effort of the existing ISPs. This requirement from the NTIA would be asking state legislatures to reverse the rules they put into place and have followed for decades.

Every list about infrastructure efficiency always suggests dig-once as a solution for reducing the cost of building fiber. This policy might have made a difference for the current grants if it was implemented twenty years ago, but implementing dig-once now would have very little impact on building BEAD grants if the requirement went into place tomorrow. Even if dig-once is implemented, it’s unlikely that a state policy will require the extra cost to add frequent access points along buried conduit – and without the access points, buried conduit is often nearly worthless for building last-mile fiber.

I completely understand the sentiment behind this requirement, but I think that state broadband offices are all going to tell the NTIA that these issues are not under their control. I find it a bit ironic that the NTIA wants states to take steps to make it easier and more affordable to build fiber while the NOFO layers on a lot of requirements that significantly inflate the cost of building a BEAD grant network.