One of the more important hearings for the future of broadband took place last week in the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee. The Committee gathered to discuss “Breaking Down Barriers to Broadband Infrastructure Deployment.”
With what has seemed like the overnight deployment of broadband Internet access to seemingly every corner of the U.S. one could be excused for wondering what possible barriers could be standing in the way. In fact, according to Pew Internet and American Life Project Surveys broadband adoption has quadrupled in ten years, and investment has been on a tear.
Adoption has been high because of the supply of an increasingly fast broadband has been available both for fixed and for mobile. The U.S. already leads the world in 4G (the fourth generation of wireless telecommunications technology) and we should be determined to do so for 5G so that the U.S. can hold onto its competitive edge. Whether in fixed or mobile, broadband providers continue to be the largest investors in this country in terms of capital expenditure. According to USTelecom, “U.S. broadband providers invested $78 billion in network infrastructure in 2014.” The report continues, “Last year alone annual investment grew by $3 billion, or 4 percent, after surging to $75 billion in 2013. Furthermore, broadband providers have made $1.4 trillion in capital investments from 1996 through 2014.
So where is the problem? As it turns out, that continuing rapid deployment, the massive investment in our future, deployment faster than any technological advance we have seen, is something of a miracle given the many challenges. Even today, with the value of mobile and fixed broadband being virtually universally known, old barriers remain and new barriers are being put in place.
While government has a critical role to play in the continued success of broadband, as was highlighted at the hearing, there exists a real need for a systematic analysis and removal of barriers to infrastructure deployment. At a time of a continuing stumbling economy removing barriers is critical, because as barriers to infrastructure are removed investment in the network increases. Those investments produce jobs and often those jobs become careers.
What then should government do? Legislators and regulators, federal and state, all must focus on establishing policies that lead to more broadband infrastructure investment, not that create or maintain impediments.
An easy improvement would involve requiring conduits (plastic pipes thorough which wires can be pulled) be included in all appropriate infrastructure projects. This so called “dig once” approach saves money and allows for more rapid deployment of new technologies. Even improving access to rights of way would be a step in the right direction. Whether federal or state, access to rights of way should be sped up. Applications for approval to build out broadband infrastructure should be given a priority, and even placed on a “shot-clock” so that if action is not taken on an application then it is automatically approved.
Additionally, fees and lease payments for right of way rental should be eliminated or at least minimized for access for broadband facilities. Similarly, rents set for attachment of broadband equipment and lines to existing poles must be carefully considered avoiding arbitrary rate increases that slow deployment and increase costs to consumers. Pole owners should not be in a position to arbitrarily raise costs on broadband providers.
And more generally, the wide variation in how broadband providers can access federal property causes dramatic slow-downs and great waste. Government needs to move at the speed of innovation, rather than at the speed of, well, government. The right path towards that goal would be to increase inter-agency cooperation, and developing a stream-lined consistent process for all. Perhaps more than most improvements this would lead to faster, further reaching broadband deployment.
Broadband is a cornerstone of our current economy, but it is also so much more. From education to entertainment, for job seeking or career enhancing, fixed in place or on the move, our increased reliance of ubiquitous broadband is growing. Legislators and regulators need to adjust the role they have played for decades and now seek the means to facilitate broadband roll out rather than hindering its free market progress.