A new "Dig Once" broadband deployment bill -- the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act of 2015 -- promises to give fiber providers an easier path to build out facilities, but will it really come to fruition?
Jointly introduced by U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Ranking Member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the bill would mandate fiber conduit be installed alongside any federally funded highway build.
"By laying broadband conduit during construction of roads that receive federal funding, broadband providers can later install fiber-optic cable without costly excavation of newly-built roads," Eshoo said in a statement. "'Dig once' is a common sense bipartisan policy that will significantly reduce the cost of broadband deployment in our country."
Today, service providers have to wade through an arduous process of gaining permits to dig up street to install fiber, particularly in areas where there are no existing utility poles. The FCC theorizes that running fiber through existing conduit costs three to four times less than running it through aerial telephone lines.
A service provider could apply for access to the conduit paths. From there they could extend an existing fiber build or add new facilities to connect a major city or a smaller town. Such infrastructure would have implications for a number of different service provider types -- ILECs, cable providers or one of the many emerging dark fiber providers (i.e. Allied Fiber, SummitIG, USA Fiber and Wilcon).
ILECs like AT&T (NYSE: T) and CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) -- two providers that have been aggressively expanding their respective fiber footprints for residential and business customers -- could accelerate their roll outs.
Even though AT&T and CenturyLink have vast infrastructure they still have to access permits to lay conduit and lay fiber along roadways. Take AT&T: The telco now reaches 950,000 business locations through the FTTB initiative of its Project VIP program. It also expanded its FTTH 1 Gbps in a number of cities.
Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, previously said that friendlier permitting will enable the company to prove its business case to bring FTTH more communities such as Jacksonville, which it launched earlier this week.
Likewise, CenturyLink, which said it would reach 700,000 homes this year with FTTH, could benefit.
Jeb Benedict, CenturyLink's (NYSE: CTL) VP of federal regulatory affairs and regulatory counsel, said during U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee meeting that it has to gain rights of way on federal lands to upgrade, expand and operate our broadband facilities.
"At most every federal land use agency, it commonly takes far too long to secure permits for installation of new or upgraded facilities on federal lands," Benedict said. "These unreasonable delays are out of step in an Internet-driven economy and add to costs and heavily impact the time to deploy and upgrade services. This in turn delays or denies broadband availability to small businesses, government agencies and everyday consumers. Congress should apply much-need pressure to agencies to give priority to broadband applications."
Joining the ILECs in the aggressive fiber push is cable. Driven by the telcos and Google Fiber's (NASDAQ: GOOG) $70-a-month 1 Gbps offering, cable has advocated a two-pronged fiber broadband approach: leverage HFC and DOCSIS 3.1 and FTTH.
Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), for instance, is not only delivering 2 Gbps, but also launched a division focused on Fortune 1000 companies -- agreements that will demand high speed fiber-based Ethernet and Layer 3 VPN services across various regions. Having open access to more conduit could mean greater access for itself and its External-Network-to-Network (E-NNI) cable partners for more buildings.
Finally, the "dig once" policy will bode well for the host of dark fiber providers cropping up and new players like Google Fiber. While a number of the dark fiber providers aren't afraid of building alternative routes, it could them another pay to carry their high count cables to a mix of businesses, education and carrier customers.
Google Fiber said in a blog post that a "dig once" policy could save up to 25–33 percent in construction costs in urban areas and roughly 16 percent in rural areas -- something it could use as it pursues new markets like San Jose, Calif.
Still, a number of questions remain. For one, how will the agencies that oversee these highways welcome this conduit and will the highway department be proactive in working with service providers to ease restrictions?
Also, will this legislation finally see the light of day? Previous efforts that emerged in 2009 and 2011 failed. These previous efforts were likely stalled by the fact that such a proposal could raise highway build costs and reduces the budget for overall projects despite the long-term benefits of not having to open up the roadways to dig again.
There are indeed a number of questions to be answered about the latest dig once bill. However, if the U.S. is serious about broadband expansion highway and other agencies need to find common ground to get such an initiative in place. --Sean