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Telecom Leaders Ask Congress to Streamline Permitting Ahead of BEAD Project Deployment

Lawmakers considered more than 30 legislative drafts targeting potential regulatory obstacles.



Photo of former Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly in 2018 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

WASHINGTON, April 20, 2023 — Telecom industry leaders on Wednesday urged Congress to streamline broadband permitting processes, claiming that the current regulatory burden could hinder the effectiveness of historic federal investments in digital infrastructure.

In a hearing of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, lawmakers debated the best solution to permitting challenges — and considered more than thirty legislative drafts targeting application timelines, environmental preservation reviews and other potential obstacles to broadband deployment.

Subcommittee Chair Bob Latta, R-Ohio, emphasized the urgency of enacting permitting reforms by pointing to the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program.

“While funding is a key piece to the puzzle, it’s not enough to make sure that people have access to broadband — we need to make sure new networks can be built in a timely and cost-efficient manner,” Latta said. “Without changes to the permitting process and meaningful oversight, all of this money set aside for broadband could be wasted.”

The impending rollout of BEAD projects “will lead to much greater demand for permits and approvals that threaten to exacerbate existing backlogs and could undermine a shared national objective of universal connectivity,” said Michael Romano, executive vice president of NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association.

Small network operators already face significant challenges in navigating current permitting procedures, including substantial fees and lengthy delays for relatively minor project components, Romano said.

Increased transparency and communication from federal agencies could greatly aid deployment, said Michael Saperstein, senior vice president of government affairs and chief strategy officer at the Wireless Infrastructure Association.

“What we’re asking for is straightforward — we simply seek a predictable application process, proportionate to the project, that will be decided in a timely manner,” Saperstein said. “And when the answer is ‘no,’ let us know why that is and let’s work together to resolve reasonable concerns.”

Industry leaders highlight pole attachment debate, environmental regulations

Michael O’Rielly, president of MPORielly Consulting and former Federal Communications Commissioner, voiced his support for the “large majority” of the bills being discussed, but argued that “the legislative efforts could go further, especially on pole attachments.”

O’Rielly specifically highlighted the Fair Access to Internet Ready Poles Act, a proposal that would establish FCC oversight over pole attachments, sparked repeated disagreement throughout the hearing.

The bill would “unfairly change the rules of the game after providers have already gone through the complicated and costly process of applying for federal funding,” claimed Louis Finkel, senior vice president of government relations for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

O’Rielly responded that he was “outraged” to see electric utility and co-op organizations “opposing even this moderate step.”

Industry leaders found common ground on several other proposed reforms, such as loosening environmental regulations — which multiple witnesses described as particularly burdensome and often duplicative.

“Streamlined approaches to actions that are known to have minimal environmental impacts will allow agencies to focus their time and resources on proposals that truly do have significant environmental impacts,” Finkel said.

Saperstein agreed, saying that “permitting processes serve a function, but common sense tells us that not every proposed action requires the same amount of scrutiny.”

Biden administration signals cooperation while Democrats urge caution

Although many of the legislative proposals discussed at the hearing were spearheaded by Republicans, O’Rielly noted that “relevant Biden administration officials have wholeheartedly agreed with permitting reform and have outlined additional action that they intend to take.”

But Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, expressed concerns about the majority party’s approach, claiming that Republican lawmakers were proposing solutions without adequately examining the problems.

“I believe that any discussion of these issues that does not include states and municipalities, Tribal representatives, environmental justice communities and other experts with relevant testimony is incomplete,” Pallone said.

Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also stressed the importance of careful consideration prior to legislative action.

“Past deregulation efforts did not lead to equitable deployment of broadband, but rather gave us digital redlining problems even in areas that were completely profitable to serve in the long run,” he warned.

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.

Rural Utilities Service

White House Nominates Basil Gooden as Rural Development Chief at USDA

Gooden would be responsible for overseeing the activities of the Rural Utilities Services, an important broadband funding agency.



Photo of Basil Gooden from Virginia Tech's web site.

WASHINGTON, September 11, 2023 – The White House on Monday announced the nomination of Basil Gooden for Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack touted the nomination in a statement, saying that Gooden “is a widely-respected, accomplished champion for affordable housing, community advancement, and economic development. His public service career is informed by a lifelong commitment to agriculture and rural development.”

Gooden is the current director of state operations for rural development at USDA.

If confirmed for the position, Gooden would be responsible for overseeing the activities of the Rural Utilities Services, which encompasses the Water and Environment Programs, the Electric Program, and the Telecommunications Program, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for rural Americans through providing funds to deploy rural telecommunications infrastructure.

The administration may seek additional funding for broadband through the department. RUS Administrator Andy Berke, the former mayor of Chatanooga, Tenn., who also served as a Commerce Department official with the title, “special representative for broadband.”

Running USDA’s Rural Utilities Service Isn’t Andy Berke’s First Act in Broadband

If selected for the position, Gooden would fill the void left behind by Xochitl Torres Small, who resigned from the role and was later confirmed by the Senate as deputy secretary of agriculture this past July.

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Bill Proposes to Modify ReConnect Program in Favor of Small Provider Applicants

The bill would create a ‘mini-grant program’ and an interagency broadband council.



Photo of Michael Bennet

WASHINGTON, August 16, 2023 – Sens Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Ted Budd, R-N.C., introduced legislation Wednesday to make it easier for small providers to apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect loan and grant program.  

The bill, called the Connecting our Neighbors to Networks and Ensuring Competitive Telecommunications Act, would ensure that federal funding reaches rural communities faster by shortening required permitting deadlines. Representatives Brittany Pettersen, D-Colorado, and Juan Ciscomani, R-Arizona, are expected to introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives. 

It would establish an office of technical assistance to aid eligible providers with application forms, create a mini-grant program for grants up to $20,000 for small providers and prioritize applications from local government, nonprofits and cooperatives. It would also shorten certain permitting deadlines for USDA-funded projects from 270 to 180 days, create an interagency broadband council to recommend uniform standards for federal programs and expand federal easements for certain electric utilities to enable them to lease existing fiber capacity. 

“It’s time Washington made federal programs easier to access for small providers – who are most attuned to the needs of their customers–and strengthened support for local governments, nonprofit organizations, and cooperatives seeking to provide internet service to rural residents,” said Bennet in a statement.  

The ReConnect program’s application process remains complicated and expensive, added Budd. He said that the process makes it more difficult for small rural providers to get projects approved and that the legislation will make it easier for more Americans to get access to affordable, high-quality internet. 

“Millions of rural Americans continue to lack adequate access to the internet, where the costs of connection can be high and existing service too slow or expensive to be of much use. While the ReConnect Loan and Grant program provides broadband funding for eligible rural areas, the application process can be complicated and prohibitively expensive for small providers,” read the press release. 

Executive Director of the Colorado Broadband Office Brandy Reitter said that the CONNECT Act “marks a significant stride toward bridging the digital divide.” 

The ReConnect program offers grants, loan-grant combinations and low-interest loans for broadband infrastructure to connect rural addresses to high-speed internet. The funds can be used to construct, improve, and acquire facilities that provide internet services to customers’ premises with reliable technologies that are suitable for rural community high-speed internet use.  

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House Committee Passes Three Bills to Reauthorize NTIA and Research Trans-Atlantic Cable and AI

Also discussed were three bills to address electric vehicle laws in Democratic states.



Screenshot of House Energy and Commerce Committee

WASHINGTON, July 27, 2023 – The House Energy and Commerce Committee passed three bills to the House floor Thursday that will reauthorize the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, direct the agency to conduct a feasibility assessment of a trans-Atlantic fiber optic cable, and conduct a study on accountability measures for artificial intelligence.  

The NTIA Reauthorization Act of 2023 is a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the NTIA and modernize the mission of the agency to meet the needs of modern America. It would eliminate what it calls unnecessary reporting requirements and consolidate current reporting requirements into an annual report. 

It would also require the NTIA to develop common models, methodologies, and inputs to inform federal spectrum management decisions and establish an informing capability to support the agency’s mission to manage federal spectrum use. It would require the NITA to convene a working group to “establish voluntary receiver criteria, rating, or other measures in bands where federal entities are primary or co-primary users.” 

Spectrum refers to the airways used to transmit wireless signals and service Wi-Fi and mobile networks across the nation. Federal agencies currently have licenses for large portions of the bands, and industry leaders are calling for more spectrum to be allocated for commercial use. 

The law would put the NTIA under obligation to conduct cybersecurity efforts, including by submitting a report examining the cybersecurity of mobile service networks and connecting outreach and technical assistance to small communications network providers. 

Representative Jay Obernolte, R-Calif., applauded the bill for addressing critical cybersecurity concerns, claiming that not addressing these concerns would cause problems in supply chain and infrastructure across the nation.  

Mark Johnson, R-Ohio, and Doris Matsui, D-Calif., added support to the bill in its ability to provide the NTIA tools to better achieve its goals and improve its spectrum coordination with the Federal Communications Commission. The representatives agreed that spectrum is critical to American infrastructure. The motion was passed with a minor amendment on a 48-0 vote. 

The Artificial Intelligence Accountability Act also passed the committee with an amendment to define terms such as “trustworthy.” It would direct the NTIA to study accountability measures for artificial intelligence systems used by communications networks and hold public meetings to solicit feedback on the information that should be available to consumers who interact with AI systems.  

Committee members also passed a bipartisan bill, called the Diaspora Link Act, that would direct the NTIA to submit a report to Congress outlining the value, cost, and feasibility of building a trans-Atlantic fiber optic cable that would connect the continental United States with Ghana and Nigeria by way of the U.S. Virgin Islands in order to “enhance the national security of the United States.” 

Clean energy bills

Also addressed were three laws that address clean energy provisions. The Preserving Choice in Vehicle Purchases Act would amend the Clean Air Act to include a requirement that the Environmental Protection Agency evaluates a state’s waiver for vehicle emissions standards to ensure it does not “directly or indirectly limit the sale or use of new motor vehicles with an internal combustion engine.” 

This bill addresses recent California legislation that seeks to require all new cars sold in 2035 and beyond are zero-emission vehicles, which includes electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid EVs.  

“We need to be honest with the American people about how forcing them to switch to electric vehicles plays right into China’s scheme to control our automotive future. China already controls access to critical minerals necessary for EVs,” said Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. China controls 76 percent of global battery cell production capacity for EVs and recently outpaced Japan in the largest exporter of new motor vehicles in the world, she said.  

Democrats strongly opposed the motion, claiming that “while Democrats are fighting [climate change] with investments to reduce pollution and grow our economy, Republicans are fighting to take away those investments and reverse our progress,” said Ranking Member Frank Pallone, D-N.J.  

Amendments to remove the section of the bill that would affect existing waivers and delay the effective date until certification that the bill would not cause disproportionate harm to American communities were not agreed to, with votes split on party lines, 27-20. The bill was passed on a 26-22 vote. 

Also considered was the Choice in Automobile Retail Sales Act that would amend previous law to prevent any regulations that mandate the use of any specific technology or resulting in the limited availability of new motor vehicles based on that vehicle’s engine type.  

The No Fuels Credits for Batteries Act would clarify that the EPA “is not authorized to use credits for electricity generated from renewable fuel for purposes of the Renewable Fuel Standard.” Both bills were passed along party lines. 

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