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By Kyle Daly
President Donald Trump called for a major infrastructure package in his Feb. 28 speech to Congress, an initiative that is likely to include broadband investment.
“To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States—financed through both public and private capital—creating millions of new jobs,” Trump said.
Although Trump didn’t mention broadband specifically, he has included it in past calls for infrastructure spending. Lawmakers from both parties, especially those from rural areas, want to ensure that any infrastructure plan includes broadband investments. It’s not clear how the package will take shape, but Republicans are focused on eliminating regulations that they believe limit the private sector’s willingness to deploy and expand broadband networks.
Efforts to push greater broadband availability in underserved areas may most directly benefit smaller broadband companies operating in parts of the country in which larger providers have already declined to invest. Large backbone network providers such as Verizon Communications Inc. and CenturyLink Inc. and wireless tower owners like American Tower Corp. could also benefit, however.
Republicans on Capitol Hill and at the Federal Communications Commission are eyeing state and local regulations and approval processes that may slow or inhibit the installation of wireless and wireline broadband networks. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he intends to work on “removing barriers to innovation and investment” to help the wireless industry build out dense, ultra-fast nationwide networks, in prepared remarks for a Feb. 28 address to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Pai Jan. 31 announced the creation of a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) that will convene industry groups, agencies at all levels of government and other stakeholders to identify regulatory barriers to broadband infrastructure investment that the FCC might be able to topple.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee, told Bloomberg BNA that she wants Congress to look at what it can do to ease local hurdles to broadband expansion.
“As we look at the expansion of wireline and fiber and utilization of fixed wireless, where they can pop it up and push out that signal, these are all local issues,” she said. Creating a “one-stop shop” for broadband providers to quickly get approval to build facilities is a “way that you can begin to get that cost down and make it more affordable” to build broadband infrastructure, Blackburn said.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has told Bloomberg BNA that he expects easing state and local regulations to be at the center of broadband infrastructure efforts. Clearing perceived local and state-level hurdles to broadband deployment, such as complex permitting processes for network build-out, will be “more like what we’ll be looking at,” Gardner said, rather than direct federal spending.
One telecom industry source told Bloomberg BNA that some state regulators are concerned such efforts could undermine their authority. The FCC’s position is unclear. Pai railed against the FCC overusing its power to preempt state laws when he was in the minority on the commission.
But Pai has also said he would consider preempting state laws to eliminate things such as fees and permitting laws that slow or add costs to broadband deployment. State regulators are looking ahead to the recommendations of the BDAC, and especially the FCC’s response to any recommendations, to get a sense of what to expect on the commission’s approach to state authority in broadband, the industry source said. The FCC was accepting applications for BDAC membership through Feb. 15 and will host the group’s first meeting this spring.
Policymakers are also looking beyond regulatory hurdles at how to spur more private sector investment flowing in broadband deployment. Plans for changes to tax policy are already in the offing and may include provisions designed to spur more investment in broadband.
Leading congressional Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have said lawmakers intend to tackle infrastructure after deciding what to do about the Affordable Care Act and then moving on to major tax legislation. Pai and broadband industry groups such as the American Cable Association have urged Congress to include tax breaks or credits for companies that install broadband in unserved or under-served areas in any changes to the tax code.
In a Feb. 27 letter to the leaders of the Senate Commerce and House Energy and Commerce panels, trade groups including USTelecom and NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association said any legislation pertaining to broadband infrastructure should ensure that any funding goes only to companies building networks in areas without broadband and should “not be made available for duplicative networks that overbuild another provider’s existing broadband infrastructure.”
Blackburn said lawmakers plan to work to bring more broadband availability to unserved and underserved areas alike, but that totally unserved communities will be the first priority.
Although funds may be allotted to broadband infrastructure, whether through tax breaks, direct federal spending or other mechanisms, it’s not clear what the scale of that funding might be. Senate Democrats in January offered up their own proposal for a $1 trillion infrastructure package rooted in direct spending, in which they suggested earmarking $20 billion for broadband.
GOP lawmakers including Gardner and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Bloomberg BNA that funding levels are still under discussion.
[With assistance from Michaela Ross.]
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