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Lawmakers Push ‘Dig-Once’ and Other Bipartisan Policies to Expand High-Speed Internet

There is at least one issue on Capitol Hill bringing together Republicans, Democrats, the tech industry and even the White House: Legislation to expand high-speed Internet access nationwide, especially for rural, tribal and other remote areas.

The push comes in the wake of a new report that noted an estimated 25 percent of households do not have access to broadband either because of prohibitive costs or limited availability.

Broadband expansion has been a signature initiative of the Obama administration, and now Congress is hopping on board with the effort, pressing legislation that aligns closely with recommendations made in a White House report released in September.

“Much of the easy work has been done,” says the report. “Lowering barriers to deployment and fostering market competition can drive down price, increase speeds, and improve service and adoption rates for all markets,” it continues.

The recommendations were the result of work by the Broadband Opportunity Council, created by President Barack Obama in March to develop a strategy for delivering high-speed Internet to areas that lack it.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology has started work on a series of bills aimed at improving broadband expansion by allowing more access to federal lands and infrastructure and streamlining the permitting processes.

So far, the bill that appears to have the most momentum is HR 3805, the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act, designed to expand high-speed Internet access by requiring states to consider installing broadband conduits at the same time federally funded highway projects are under construction.

Lawmakers hope the so-called dig-once legislation would save money and encourage broadband investments by reducing the costs for providers to put more cables underground.

“It is so common sense that I wonder why we didn’t come up with this a decade ago,” said ranking Democrat Anna G. Eshoo of California, who sponsored the dig-once bill along with Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore. The bill, which was endorsed by the committee on both sides of the aisle, has more than 25 co-sponsors. Eshoo introduced similar bills in 2009 and 2011.

Though the bill didn’t pass on those two previous attempts, it did provide some inspiration for a similar executive order issued in June 2012.

The order requires federal agencies to ensure that broadband infrastructure projects coincide with highway construction whenever possible to reduce companies’ costs of expanding their high-speed Internet networks.

The dig-once legislation, however, goes further than the executive order. It would specifically require states to evaluate the need for broadband conduit — a pipe that could hold fiber-optic cables — to be installed at the same time as a federally funded highway construction project. If the evaluation shows the need to install the pipes in that area in the next 15 years, it would have to be installed at the same time as the highway construction.

Large portions of broadband networks run through the public right-of-way in the space next to highways or directly underneath the roadways, depending on the amount of space available. The Federal Highway Administration has estimated that digging up and rebuilding roads can contribute to 90 percent of the costs for expanding broadband networks.

Walden said piggybacking the two projects “will reduce the costs of broadband deployment significantly.”

Digital-rights advocacy group Public Knowledge applauded the measure, saying it would “expedite and dramatically lower the cost to providers, encouraging competition and making future upgrades easier.”

“This straightforward, common sense approach has worked in those local communities that have adopted it,” said Kate Forscey, government affairs associate counsel at Public Knowledge.

“Broadband is now as critical an infrastructure as our roads and highways. By passing this bill, Congress will allow fiber providers to leverage our national highway system to build the information super-highway of the future.”

Broader Efforts for Improvements

Congressional efforts to improve broadband could go well beyond the dig-once policy. Republicans and Democrats on the House Communications and Technology subcommittee also expressed broad support for five discussion drafts of bills that would align closely with recommendations made in the administration’s September broadband report.

One of those proposals would require an inventory of federal assets such as utility poles, communications towers and cables that could be used by broadband providers as they expand or upgrade their networks.

Another one would streamline the permitting process of federal land agencies so it is easier for broadband providers to build infrastructure on public land. The U.S. government owns around 640 million acres, or some 28 percent of land in the country, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Required historical preservation and environmental protection reviews would also be the targets of a simplified process.

Jeb Benedict, vice president of federal regulatory affairs and regulatory counsel at the Internet, phone and TV services provider Centurylink, said that streamlining the permit process will help reduce the time and costs associated with expanding or upgrading broadband networks.

Centurylink often faces wait-times of 6 to 12 months for permits from federal land agencies, while permits for state and private lands usually take just a few weeks, Benedict said.

Other proposals circulating would ensure that poles owned by the federal government are available to broadband providers at a regulated rate and clarify guidelines on contracts, forms and fees related to broadband deployment.

Spectrum Sale Could Boost Broadband

The dig-once bill and discussion of other measures build on another major bipartisan push that would target improvements to wireless broadband.

The two-year bipartisan budget deal calls for auctioning off government-held airwaves to offset spending increases, a move that could raise billions.

The Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation staff estimate the sale of spectrum could result in a $4.4 billion total boost to government funds by the end of the 2025 fiscal year.

The budget pact includes language from the Spectrum Pipeline Act, a discussion draft that was the subject of a hearing in October in the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

Lawmakers from both parties have been searching for ways to encourage government agencies to give up a portion of their airwaves. The government hopes to raise money by auctioning off spectrum to wireless companies such as AT&T and Verizon, eager to boost connection speeds to meet increasing consumer demand, particularly on mobile devices.

The move drew applause from the National Grange, a nonprofit group advocating for rural and agricultural areas.

“While we agree more must be done to deploy high-speed, fixed broadband to remote corners of the country, we believe that selling or sharing underused, federally-held spectrum is the most pressing matter,” National Grange President Ed Luttrell said in a statement.

He added that wireless connectivity “will allow rural Americans to have greater access to telemedicine and educational opportunities, as well as the benefits of the growing Internet of Things.”

The Internet of Things refers to a wide array of devices connected to the Internet, such as bracelets that measure physical activity and tools to help manufacturers improve efficiency.

But the wireless industry signaled it is still hoping for more action from Congress.

Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of the wireless communications trade group CTIA, said the language is an “important first step,” but she called for further action.

“As other countries around the world are allocating large paired blocks of spectrum for future broadband needs, it is disappointing that we were not able to do more now to meet Americans’ demands for 5G and the Internet of Things,” she said in a statement.

“It is incumbent on all of us to redouble our efforts to identify hundreds of MHz of additional spectrum to meet Americans future demand for mobile services so that America can remain the world leader in wireless.”

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