Streamlining Broadband Deployment Permitting is Vital, Telecoms Tell Congress

Members of a House Subcommittee heard from telecom associations on Wednesday about what members trying to gain permits to deploy broadband are going through. In a hearing of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, association representatives, including WIA and NTCA, The Rural Broadband Association, explained that some companies are waiting several months to obtain a permit, often without knowing where their application stands in the process.

Subcommittee Chair Bob Latta (R-OH) said, “We need networks to be built in a timely and cost-effective manner. Lengthy application reviews will delay connectivity and increase costs. Without changes to the permitting process, all this money will be wasted,” he explained, referring to the $65 billion the administration has devoted to broadband deployment.  

Latta said he appreciates the FCC’s broadband deployment streamlining efforts. However, he said, those changes “need to be codified.” The subcommittee is reviewing 30 legislative proposals covering issues such as shot clocks for reviewing applications, permitting fees, access to Rights-of-Ways and pole attachments.

Minority Leader Doris Matsui (D-CA) said the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD) “will be successful because it addresses the fundamental barrier to deployment. Economics.” She noted lawmakers continue to support the NTIA as it implements the program.

Asked to describe problems, NTCA EVP Michael Romano discussed one company that was told it had to pay $30,000 for engineering studies on top of construction costs and experienced a one-year delay in obtaining its deployment permit. “The approval took so long he couldn’t begin construction in winter” in a place where broadband deployment was previously allowed, he said.

Romano said the bills will help spur rural broadband deployment for both wired and wireless technologies and provide timely access to poles and railroad crossings. States must be prepared to process the applications they’ll receive from BEAD applicants, he testified, noting they must have enough staffers and train them. He described one state that had only two people processing applications concerning broadband, oil, and gas paperwork.

WIA SVP Government Affairs Michael Saperstein said: “We simply seek a predictable application process proportional to the project that will be decided in a timely manner. And when the answer is ‘no,’ let us know why that is and let’s work together to resolve reasonable concerns.”

Saperstein, who’s also WIA’s Chief Strategy Officer, testified that 5G is being deployed at twice the speed that 4G was. That’s why the permitting process must be “strengthened,” he said. “Many jurisdictions are doing an end run around the application shot clock for colocation and minor modifications by claiming things like the locality lacks processing procedures and the shot clock can’t start until those procedures are established.” Or, some jurisdictions are “simply refusing to accept the application to avoid triggering the shot clock.”

“WIA members seek clarity, accountability and transparency” concerning permitting on federal lands. He suggested “simple portals” would help.

National Rural Electric Cooperative Association SVP Government Relations Louis Finkel called electric co-ops “the provider of last resort,” because in addition to selling electricity, some are providing broadband too, in rural, remote places. He agreed the application process takes too long and is too expensive. “The process must be modernized to give providers more certainty.”

Former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, now president of MPORielly Consulting, said, “the current rules make companies avoid dealing with the feds. The U.S. cannot be a global leader in wireless without infrastructure.” He noted the “siting of towers or antennas, whether large or small” have generated opposition in some quarters, “based without reason or facts.”  

Efforts to streamline timelines and address NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act ] and historic preservation permitting would go a long way, O’Rielly said. “If we don’t fix some of these issues,” broadband deployments will be delayed “and costs will be exceptional,” he testified, noting that providers in the FCC’s RDOF program have run into the same problems. Not fixing these issues “will leave a portion of populations unserved after the money has been spent,” he predicted.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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