White House Pushes Federal Aid for Broadband Deployment

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By Lydia Beyoud

Sept. 21 — Federal agencies should further streamline the ability of private companies to access federal lands, structures and rights of way in order to help speed broadband deployment nationwide, the White House said in a broadband report released Sept. 21.

The White House made the recommendation in response to concerns raised by trade associations in recent months, including PCIA-The Wireless Infrastructure Association, about the difficulty broadband companies face in accessing these facilities, despite a 2012 federal directive to streamline the application process for companies regarding federal lands. 

In its first Broadband Opportunity Report, the Broadband Opportunity Council, an interagency group established by the White House, outlined key policies and proposals to bring high-speed broadband to the nation's hard-to-reach places: rural communities, tribal lands and low-income areas. The council was founded March 23 to help coordinate various federal programs and agencies working to narrow the “digital divide”. Federal agencies involved in the council, including the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, and Treasury, will implement the recommendations over the next 18 months.

“Much of the easy work has been done” to bring broadband to places where it is economically viable for providers to do so, the report said. “The hard work that remains is reaching those communities where geography and economics work against deployment and reaching individuals who do not yet have the same opportunities to use broadband to meet personal and professional goals.”

Cumulatively, the report's recommended actions will open or clarify potential uses for $10 billion in federal grants and loans to include broadband as an eligible program expenditure, the council said.

Federal Lands, Assets

The Department of Transportation is expected to issue policy guidance to define highway rights of way for broadband deployment. Part of its study will include guidance on the shared use of fiber, conduit and other assets, policies for pole attachments, and policies on the use and valuation of excess fiber capacity within Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) to be used by automobile manufacturers and the DOT for enabling vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure deployments.

The recommendations include a broad survey of all federal infrastructure assets to be held in an online inventory to be made available to the public.

The Department of the Interior will be expected to develop a program to use over 4,000 wireless towers and other assets on DOI-managed property to support broadband deployment, according to the report. The inventory is intended to help support faster and more economical broadband deployment to rural areas, the report said.

That program will use public-private partnerships to upgrade towers in exchange for discounted tower leases. “This effort could reduce barriers to entry, increase competition and improve service over 500 million square acres of land in unserved and underserved communities,” particularly on tribal lands, the report said.

Local Government Policies

The council also wants cities and towns to change their approach to infrastructure deployment through the promotion of “dig once” policies at the state and local level.

Federal agencies that fund significant infrastructure investments will work together and with local governments to further promote dig once policies to enable cost savings for local governments and telecommunications companies by coordinating infrastructure projects and allowing telecom conduit to be laid alongside transportation, water and other projects.

In a bid to help promote municipal broadband programs, the council suggested the Department of Commerce offer best practices and technical assistance to communities seeking to expand broadband in their areas.

The BroadbandUSA program run through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will provide technical assistance to local governments developing broadband infrastructure and adoption projects and will offer services designed to accelerate and advance the projects.

ITU Report

A United Nations broadband report also released Sept. 21 cited a need to increase broadband connectivity in developing nations. The report found that about 57 percent of the global population still doesn't have access to Internet connectivity, and the cost of connection remains prohibitively expensive for citizens of developing nations.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

Text of the White House report is at https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/broadband_opportunity_council_report_final.pdf.

Text of the White House's blog post is at https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/09/21/new-steps-deliver-high-speed-broadband-across-united-states.