Lawmakers introduce new bill to accelerate rural broadband deployments on highway rights of way

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A group of lawmakers have introduced the Highway Rights-of-Way Permitting Efficiency Act of 2017, a bill designed to streamline rural broadband permitting in existing highway rights-of-way (ROW) for broadband infrastructure projects.

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), along with Senators Steve Daines (R-MT) and Deb Fischer (R-NE), say the new bill will streamline broadband permitting in existing highway ROW for broadband infrastructure projects.

“With access to fast internet, Utah’s businesses can compete with companies across the world. This much-needed legislation helps rural broadband providers by streamlining the deployment of broadband infrastructure across federal lands,” Hatch said in a statement.

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Daines echoed Hatch’s thesis, adding that by “eliminating unnecessary regulations we can more rapidly connect rural America and deploy broadband infrastructure."

Eliminating red tape

What has held up the deployment of rural broadband providers and rural communities is the cumbersome permitting process to gain necessary ROWs along highways.

Rural providers have to deal with duplicative federal permitting laws and regulations, agency mismanagement, and poor cross-agency communication. These issues cause project delays and cost-overruns for cash strapped rural providers.

Making matters worse is that service providers that are launching broadband expansion projects in highway ROW may be required to obtain approval from multiple agencies, including: the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), state departments of transportation, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Forest Service (FS).

As part of this process, process broadband providers National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance, which often requires separate environmental assessments or impact statements for a single project.

The Senators said that these duplicative reviews cause unnecessary years-long delays in processing and cost overruns, but also discourage providers and states from pursuing broadband deployment projects, particularly in rural areas.

This bill hopes to remedy these issues by providing a coordinated federal broadband permit process.

The bill proposes the designation of a lead agency in the federal permitting process, regardless of whether a state opts-in to the “State Permitting Authority” agreement. The lawmakers said this will consolidate efforts from the executive branch and create a single point of contact for a given broadband deployment project, intending to drive efficiencies into the permitting process.

“This legislation takes critical steps to streamline the permitting process for new broadband infrastructure projects,” Fischer said“By reducing red tape, we can help more Nebraska families access broadband services.”

Rural groups cite support

The proposed new bill garnered support from a number of rural broadband associations.

These organizations represent smaller Tier 3 telcos that don’t have the legal and local personnel to navigate the complex ROW permitting process.

WTA—Advocates for Rural Broadband—said in a statement that its small telecom provider members face costly and time-consuming barriers to leverage existing ROWs on federal lands to build broadband networks.

“Government should do its due diligence, but it should also work efficiently because every day spent waiting for a permit is one more day rural Americans wait for quality broadband,” said Derrick Owens, WTA’s VP of government affairs, in a statement. “Every dollar spent on duplicative environmental reviews is one less dollar available for investment in a robust broadband network.”

NTCA, an organization that provides advocacy for rural broadband providers, echoed a similar sentiment.

“Small rural telecom operators continue to endure cumbersome and time-consuming permitting processes that hinder the timely deployment of broadband networks in rural America,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA in a statement. “Government at all levels should work collaboratively to expedite placement of infrastructure, and NTCA hopes this bill will help move us toward a more streamlined and harmonized set of permitting processes.”