There are a lot of factors that contribute to the speed of constructing infrastructure. A few weeks ago, the White House announced an initiative to address some of these issues to speed up the construction of the $550 billion in infrastructure that was funded with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, along with earlier money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
It’s an interesting document that lists a number of steps that have already been taken by the federal government to speed up the infrastructure construction process. Some of the initiatives listed should help to speed up large road and bridge construction projects.
But the list doesn’t describe much that is being done to speed up fiber construction. The list includes the same ineffective policies that the federal government has been announcing for years to assist broadband. For example, there will be a new emphasis on dig-once. That’s a policy that might have made some difference if implemented twenty years ago, but as far as offering any assistance for building rural broadband projects in the next few years, it is close to worthless. The list also talks about speeding up permitting on Tribal lands, which, while important, is only going to impact a limited number of rural broadband projects.
The fact is, there is not much, if anything, that the White House can do to speed up fiber construction. This is due to the detailed and specific rules in the IIJA legislation, where Congress specified a step-by-step process that must be followed before the $42.5 billion in new broadband funding can be awarded to projects. To give a few examples:
- The IIJA insists that the new FCC maps be used to determine areas that are eligible for grants. There is no doubt that the lobbyists who suggested that language knew full well that the new maps were going to be delayed, as has already happened. We are still not done with the mapping issue since there is a convoluted challenge process getting started that is likely to be a large mess.
- The legislation gives the grant money to states to administer but then defines a multi-step process to get a grant plan in place that is full of delays. One example is that States must draft a detailed grant plan, share it with public groups in all corners of a state, and document and address any issues that locals think are important. It’s refreshing to see a grant program that wants so much public input, but there is no way this process is going to happen quickly. It’s another reason that BEAD grants will take longer than other grant programs.
There are half a dozen other steps that must be taken before a state is ready to accept the federal grant money. It’s been almost a year since the IIJA legislation was passed, and from the perspective of the public waiting for better broadband, practically nothing has been accomplished. The NTIA and states have been busy checking off progress on the Congressionally mandated process – but everything that has been done is dealing with the paperwork mandated by Congress. At this point, it’s hard to imagine grants being awarded until at least a year from now, and that might be optimistic.
I remember reading articles after the BEAD grants were first awarded that optimistically expected grant construction to start in 2023. We’ll be lucky if much actual construction is done in 2024 because even after a grant award is made, there will be a time-consuming process of completing all of the needed paperwork for a grant winner to receive the funding. After that, most grants are going to have another delay while environmental studies are done – something that is a huge waste of time and money for any network that will be constructed in existing public rights-of-way.
I got a sinking feeling the first time that I read the IIJA order because it was clear that the detailed Congressional rules for BEAD grants were written by somebody that didn’t want the process to go quickly. We will likely never know what happened behind closed doors when the legislation was being written, but the final rules have big ISP fingerprints all over them. Making the process go slowly first extends the period while the incumbents can enjoy a few more years of monopoly profits. It also gives the big ISPs enough time to develop a strategy to snag a big share of the funding – something they clearly intend to do. This is not to say that the big ISPs will win most of the funding because there are some states that have a bias against big ISPs – but the delays give the big companies time to lobby and plan to maximize their chances.