WASHINGTON, December 13, 2022 – Onerous permitting regimes and other regulatory barriers could significantly hamper broadband deployment projects, executives from leading trade groups told the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband on Tuesday.
Preparing to monitor the administrative state’s distribution of the largest American broadband investment to date, the subcommittee’s members asked the witness panel how government can facilitate the effective deployment of funds. The largest slice is the $42.5 Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, advocated streamlining permitting processes on federal lands and in local communities as well as ensuring reasonably priced pole access for broadband providers. Powell argued that entities exempt from federal pole-attachment rate regulations – which include cooperatives and municipalities – are incentivized to raise prices to ward off potential competitors in the broadband market.
Often, on federal lands, multiple agencies will claim the permitting authority, Powell said. Federal permitting fees are often exorbitant, he continued, and navigating these processes can “add years and years to a (company’s) commitment to build.
“These kinds of programs always have a tendency to attract layered-on regulatory requirements that are tangential to the mission of the program,” Powell said. “The consequence of that is it creates more complexity, additional burden, and raises the cost of an already fragile cost model.”
Congress should make broadband grants non-taxable, said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of US Telecom. The Broadband Grant Tax Treatment Act would do so for Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and American Rescue Plan Act grants. According to some on Capitol Hill, Congress may pass the bill by year’s end.
Powell and Spalter argued that poor communication between the myriad agencies that oversee federal broadband initiatives obscures which eligible areas have already received federal funding – to the detriment of industry players. “One of the challenges for regulators is to ruthlessly attempt to harmonize criteria…across these programs and make sure all take cognizance of the other[s] as they make their decisions,” Powell said.
Spalter suggested a certification process through which agencies would be required to confirm that new grants are not issued to already-funded locations. Panelists and senators voiced concerns about redundantly allocated federal funds at several points in the hearing.
Lujan on Build America, Buy America and workforce issues
The NTIA’s guidelines for the BEAD program mandate compliance with the Build America, Buy America Act, which favors domestic manufacturing and, according to many experts, raises prices on goods necessary for broadband deployment. In response to economic pressures, the NTIA proposed waiving this requirement for the Middle Mile grant program, and many have urged the agency to institute a waiver for the BEAD program.
“We should always strive to encourage more manufacturing here in the United States with both onshoring and near-shoring,” subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., told Broadband Breakfast after the hearing. “Democratic and Republican members have pushed for and have fought for the inclusion of equipment made in America,” he added.
Some have also criticized the NTIA’s worker-related policies, which, they say, will artificially drive up the cost of labor and network deployments. “The rules that are being applied by NTIA reflect the importance of having people…work in a way that they’re able to take care of themselves as well,” Lujan said. He further called on Congress to address potential workforce shortages – a concern of many industry players.