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.

Dig Once Rules Coming

US Representative Anna Eshoo of California has submitted a ‘dig once’ bill every year since 2009, and the bill finally passed in the House. For this to become law the bill still has to pass the Senate, but it got wide bipartisan support in the House.

Dig Once is a simple concept that would mandate that when roads are under construction that empty conduit is places in the roadbed to provide inexpensive access for somebody that wants to bring fiber to an area.

Here are some specifics included in the bill:

  • This would apply to Federal highway projects, but also to state projects that get any federal funding. It encourages states to apply this more widely.
  • For any given road project there would be ‘consultation’ with local and national telecom providers and conduit would be added if there is an expected demand for fiber within 15 years.
  • The conduit would be installed under the hard surface of the road at industry standard depths.
  • The conduits would contain pull tape that would allow for easy pulling of fiber in the future.
  • Handholes would be placed at intervals consistent with industry best practices.

This all sounds like good stuff, but I want to play devil’s with some of the requirements.

The initial concept of dig once was to never pass up the opportunity to place conduit into an ‘open ditch’. The cost of digging to put in conduit probably represents 80% of the cost of deployment in most places. But this law is not tossing conduit into open construction ditches. It instead requires that the conduit be placed at depths that meet industry best practices. And that is going to mean digging at a foot or more deeper than the construction that was planned for the roadbed.

To understand this you have to look at the lifecycle of roads. When a new road is constructed the road bed is typically dug from 18 inches deep to 3 feet deep depending upon the nature of the subsoil and also based upon the expected traffic on the road (truck-heavy highways are built to a higher standard than residential streets). Typically roads are then periodically resurfaced several times when the road surface deteriorates. Resurfacing usually requires going no deeper than a few inches into the roadbed. But at longer intervals of perhaps 50 years (differs by local conditions) a road is fully excavated to the bottom of the roadbed and the whole cycle starts again.

This means that the conduit needs to be placed lower than the planned bottom of the roadbed. Otherwise, when the road is finally rebuilt all of the fiber would be destroyed. And going deeper means additional excavation and additional cost. This means the conduit would not be placed in the ‘open ditch’. The road project will have dug out the first few feet of the needed excavation, but additional, and expensive work would be needed to put the conduit at the safe depth. In places where that substrate is rock this could be incredibly expensive, but it wouldn’t be cheap anywhere. It seems to me that this is shuttling the cost of deploying long-haul fiber projects to road projects, rather than to fiber providers. There is nothing wrong with that if it’s the national policy and there are enough funds to pay for it – but I worry that in a country that already struggles to maintain our roads that this will just means less road money for roads since every project just got more expensive.

The other issue of concern to me is handholes and access to the fiber. This is pretty easy for an Interstate and there ought to be fiber access at every exit. There are no customers living next to Interstates and these are true long-haul fibers that stretch between communities.

But spacing access points along secondary roads is a lot more of a challenge. For instance, if you want a fiber route to be used to serve businesses and residents in a city this means an access point every few buildings. In more rural areas it means an access point at every home or business. Adding access points to fiber is the second most labor-intensive part of the cost after the cost of construction. If access points aren’t where they are needed, in many cases the fiber will be nearly worthless. It’s probably cheaper in the future to build a second fiber route with the proper access points than it is to try to add them to poorly designed existing fiber route.

This law has great intentions. But it is based upon the concept that we should take advantage of construction that’s already being paid for. I heartily support the concept for Interstate and other long-haul highways. But the concept is unlikely to be sufficient on secondary roads with lots of homes and businesses. And no matter where this is done it’s going to add substantial cost to highway projects.

I would love to see more fiber built where it’s needed. But this bill adds a lot of costs to building highways, which is already underfunded in the country. And if not done properly – meaning placing fiber access points where needed – this could end up building a lot of conduit that has little practical use for a fiber provider. By making this a mandate everywhere it is likely to mean spending a whole lot of money on conduit that might never be used or used only for limited purposes like feeding cellular towers. This law is not going to create fiber that’s ready to serve neighborhoods or those living along highways.

The White House Broadband Plan

The White House used a forum at the American Farm Bureau Federation to announce new policies affecting rural broadband. Unfortunately, similar to the policies of the last administration the announced plans seem to offer no useful remedies for the lack of rural broadband infrastructure.

The President’s new recommendations were captured in two executive orders:

  • The biggest thrust of the new policies is to make it easier to place cell towers on federal lands. The President said, “Those towers are gonna go up and you’re gonna have great broadband,”. But finding places to site rural cell towers has never been a real problem. There is not much cost difference between putting a tower for free on federal land versus finding a site on private land in rural America. The biggest issue with placing new rural cell towers is getting broadband backhaul to the tower. It’s hard to think that there will be more than a handful of instances where this new policy will make a difference.
  • The second executive order was aimed at streamlining and expediting requests for placement of broadband facilities on federal lands. Except for finding better routes for long-haul fiber this new policy also doesn’t seem to have much real-life market value, particularly for the needed last mile connections.

These new policies add to a few policies issued in October by the administration’s Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. That report made a few recommendations that included having multiple government agencies concentrate on expanding e-connectivity (a new phrase used to describe higher bandwidth), attracting private capital investment through “free-market policies, laws and structures”, and reducing barriers to rural infrastructure deployment (which the new executive orders apparently address).

To be clear, I am not particularly criticizing this administration for these announcements because they are similar to the proposals of the past administrations. President Obama had announced rural broadband policies that included:

  • A dig once policy for any construction done on federal highways. The goal was to get conduit into the ground over time along Interstate highways. But the directive came with no additional funding and to the best of my knowledge has never been implemented;
  • The last administration also announced its intention to make it easier to place broadband infrastructure on federal lands in nearly the same language as the current executive orders. But one of the biggest characteristics of federal land is that it’s extremely rural and for the most part is not close to a lot of rural homes. The big issue with building rural broadband infrastructure is the cost of construction, and making it slightly easier to site facilities barely makes a dent in the total cost of building rural infrastructure

What was not put on the table by this and the last administration is any meaningful funding for rural broadband – the one thing the federal government could do that might make a real difference. There was talk at the beginning of this administration of creating some sort of grant program aimed at paying for part of the cost of rural broadband. From the beginning all of the administration’s infrastructure plans involved using seed money from federal grants to attract significant commercial investment. The President’s speech at the AFBF mentioned hopes for the administration to still find infrastructure for “roadways, railways and waterways”, but there was no longer any mention of broadband.

Presidential policies aimed at dig once policies or easier siting for rural cell towers aren’t going to have any practical impact on new rural broadband deployment. I’ve never really understood politics and I guess the temptation to sound like you are doing something to solve an issue is too tempting. But today’s announcements bring nothing new to the table. And in fact, by making it sound like the government is doing something about rural broadband it probably does more harm than good by holding out hope for those with no broadband without any solutions.

Can ‘Dig Once’ Work?

There is a lot of discussion on Capitol Hill of implementing a national ‘dig once’ policy that would require that empty conduit be placed whenever anybody builds new roads or sidewalks or upgrades existing ones.

This is an idea that has been around for a while. President Obama tried to require this as part of an executive order in 2012 for all federal road projects. But this never was implemented when the road projects didn’t have specific funds allocated for the conduit and labor. Rep Anna Eschoo (D-CA) has been proposing legislation for this annually since 2009. And a number of cities around the country have adopted dig once rules of various types.

It seems like this is an idea that has wide bipartisan interest now on Capitol Hill and so there has been a lot of talk about a dig once bill being implemented. Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) put the latest bill from Representative Eschoo onto the agenda for the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee. A number of legislators from both sides of the aisle have announced support for the bill.

But today I want to examine if a dig once policy will be effective in helping to build more broadband. Certainly in the long run it seems like a good idea – if every street in the country already had empty conduit today we’d be a lot further along in getting broadband everywhere. This would be particularly true in rural areas where the cost of burying conduit (or of getting onto poles) is the major hurdle for building new fiber networks. But like anything that involves infrastructure, there are right and wrongs ways of implementing such a policy that could limit the usefulness of conduit it is done poorly.

Speed of Deployment. The number one issue that I foresee is the slow speed of deployment of conduit under this policy. Most streets and roads are engineered to be replaced on a 30 to 50 year cycle depending upon the use of the road and local weather conditions. There are also huge miles of unpaved rural roads that may not be excavated for even longer, if ever. What this means from a practical perspective is that it’s going to be a long time until there is enough conduit in place to make a difference. Since America needs broadband now, I have concerns about a policy that won’t provide any significant amount of conduit for decades to come. I fear that the time to implement this was twenty years ago and that it might be too late for this to have any practical impact on building fiber that is needed now.

Access to Local Connections. A bigger concern is the issue of access to fiber. Consider a conduit that is laid with the dig once rules along a few miles of a busy business district. If that conduit was not constructed with the needed access – handholes and manholes – then the fiber will be largely unusable for delivery of fiber to the businesses along that street. It can be nearly as expensive to come back and add access to a conduit than it is to build new fiber.

Having empty conduit make a lot of sense along stretches of highway that will be used for for middle mile fiber to connect towns. By definition, middle mile fiber is built without many access points since the primary purpose of the fiber is to connect to adjoining communities. I think it was the access issue that stopped the federal highway department from implementing President Obama’s executive order. It’s one thing to put a conduit into an empty ditch, but it’s something very different to spend the engineering dollars needed to decide where access points are needed during road construction and to then pay for the access points.

To some extent this requires highway builders to have a crystal ball – where will the potential customers be along a conduit route fifteen or twenty years in the future? Failure to provide access to the conduit where it will eventually be needed will result in numerous future holes being dug in the street when somebody tries to use the conduit for local access.

There is even a simpler issue that be a problem with empty conduit. Consider a fiber that is built down one side of a busy highway. It can be an expensive effort to later tunnel under the highway to serve people on the opposite side of the highway. This means that using the empty conduit might cost more than alternate construction methods like building on overhead pole lines for distribution. Having empty conduit available does not always mean saving money. Do we mandate putting empty conduit on both sids of a new road?

I’ve already seen the practical consequences of having a patchwork of empty conduit in place. I’ve had clients try to build fiber in towns that had some empty conduit, and in some cases the hassle of trying to integrate existing conduit into an engineering plan was more work and cost than it was worth to these clients.

Uniform Rules of Use. It’s likely that dig once rules will apply to anybody that digs up streets. This might mean that over time there will be numerous different entities placing empty conduit in a City like the street department, the gas company, the water company and anybody else that digs up streets. Who is responsible for keeping track of the specific location of the empty conduit? How do you coordinate somehow connecting conduit that is built at different times, at different depths and on various different sides and parts of streets? Who is responsible for maintaining the conduit – for example, what happens when somebody cuts an empty conduit? I could easily make a list of dozens or practical issues that must be considered to make this work.

Without specific local rules I envision a hodgepodge of conduit built that doesn’t connect into a coherent network. I also have worked with numerous communities that do a poor job of record keeping and I picture losing track of conduit placement and creating an engineering and paper nightmare for a future fiber builder.

Competition. This may sound like an odd concern, but I can also picture dig once rules being a disincentive to build new fiber. Consider a situation where somebody is contemplating building fiber today along a route to get to a cell site of a subdivision. Companies that build fiber understand that the payback takes many years, and that factors into financing the new construction. If  fiber builder knows that a given stretch of road is going to be excavated five years from now they might not want to spend the money today to build fiber there. For example, would it make sense to spend the money to build fiber to a rural cellular site if five years from now the cell site owner will be able to bypass you using ‘dig once’ conduit? It would be ironic if this rule leads to less fiber being built – but I can picture cases where that might be the result of the rule.

Other issues. I can think of other kinds of issues that should be addressed with a dig once policy. For example, what will be the cost to use conduit built in this manner and who decides what fair compensation is? Can a new fiber overbuilder by forced to use empty conduit even if it’s more expensive than some alternative form of construction? How do you deal with the numerous jurisdictional issues since there are widely different ways that state, local and private roads are built and paid for around the country.

Dig once is one of those ideas that instantly sounds like a good idea to anybody that hears it. But like most things that sound simple but which are really complex – if its done right it could do a lot of good, and if done poorly it could waste a lot of money and result in conduit that is never used. I’d hate to see this turn into another federal mandate that ends up building ‘bridges to nowhere’.

Presidential Candidate’s Broadband Platforms

White HouseThe political season is upon us and I noticed that Hillary Clinton issued an infrastructure plan that includes making significant investments in broadband. I guess like is true for most industries, people like me that try to track a given industry are always interested in what potential presidents might have in store for us. Here are the key points of her broadband platform:

  • “By 2020, 100% of households in America will have the option of affordable broadband that delivers speeds sufficient to meet families’ need.”
  • Create a $25 billion Infrastructure Bank that will offer grants to communities for broadband and for other purposes to jumpstart community-initiated broadband projects.
  • Reduce regulatory barriers to the private provision of broadband.
  • Promote policies like ‘dig once’ that will provide more broadband infrastructure.
  • Develop public-private partnerships for broadband.
  • Connect more anchor institutions to high-speed Internet.
  • Deploy 5G wireless and next generation wireless systems.
  • Reallocate and repurpose spectrum for broadband.
  • Foster a civic Internet of Things to foster broadband deployment.

That’s quite a wish list and it’s the most detailed list of broadband goals that I recall ever seeing from a candidate before. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush had platforms that included expanding access to broadband, but they were far less specific than this. Here are my reactions to the platform:

  • The goal of getting broadband to everybody by 2020 is a silly political goal. If the programs were already in place today to somehow pay for this it would still take a lot longer than that to deploy adequate broadband to everybody. And this raises the issue of what ‘affordable broadband that delivers speeds that meets families’ needs’ means. I would think at the federal level that they believe that is what CAF II is doing, although most of us in the industry understand this to be a boondoggle that will deliver speeds that will be obsolete before they are installed. And even after CAF II is built there will be a lot of places in rural America (and urban America) that won’t meet this goal.
  • Putting federal dollars into programs that can seed broadband expansion is something that we know can work. Just look at the DEED grants in Minnesota to see how the $65 million in grants there since the start of the program have seeded numerous rural broadband projects. I see many broadband projects that can’t find funding, and many of those projects could get a great jump-start with some seed money from a federal source. One always has to worry with federal funding that taking the money isn’t too expensive – for example, a huge amount of money was wasted by the BTOP rule that all projects had to pay urban labor rates for construction. And since this infrastructure bank will be doing more than just broadband, we’d have to see how much money would actually be available. But any federal money is going to help.
  • It would be interesting to see how regulations could be improved for broadband. The FCC is now in the process of regulating broadband for the first time, but the regulations that make it hard to build fiber are mostly at the state and local level.
  • I’ve commented in the past how most ‘dig once’ plans are often a waste of time. Conduit that is built without the necessary handholes and other access points is nearly worthless for serving neighborhoods with fiber.
  • I sit here and wonder what the federal government could do to promote public-private partnerships and I come up empty. I’m a big fan of PPPs, but I also know the challenges of putting together a good partnership and it doesn’t seem like the sort of things that federal rules could make easier or better.
  • I worry about including 5G as a broadband plan. I guess anybody who reads my blog knows I think fiber is always going to be the ultimate technology. Even if we migrate to wireless drops there will need to be fiber deep in neighborhoods and close to homes.

Overall this is not a bad list. It’s certainly more ambitious than anything we’ve seen before. The most promising thing on the list are the grants to promote broadband. Those might do more good than the rest of the list to get a lot more fiber projects under shovel.

Donald Trump has not put out any specific goals for broadband. But he said in a few speeches that he’s in favor of putting as much as a trillion dollars into infrastructure. If more details become available I will try to compare both plans.

Of course, as history has shown us, having something in a presidential platform is no guarantee that it will ever come to pass – but it is a set of goals. But first, the candidate has to get elected and after that there are a lot of politics that include Congress and the FCC that are necessary before most of these goals can ever become realized.