Broadband Infrastructure Providers Share California Regulatory Challenges

'The challenges are not new… We haven't really progressed to the point where we have solutions,' infrastructure provider says

Broadband Infrastructure Providers Share California Regulatory Challenges
From Left: Greg Lucas, California State Librarian: Lori Adams, vice president of Broadband Policy and Funding Strategy at Nokia; Bill Higgins, executive director of the California Association of Councils of Governments; and Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA Fiber at California Broadband Summit on Wednesday.

SACRAMENTO, June 6, 2024 – Broadband infrastructure providers continue to struggle to overcome regulatory challenges in California, citing the cost to build and permitting delays as factors that delay the rollout of next-generation Internet technology.

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“California is notoriously a more expensive and difficult place to build…There’s so much need [for infrastructure] but it’s really hard to do business there from a network standpoint,” said panelist Lori Adams, vice president of broadband policy and funding strategy at Nokia.

Adams spoke Wednesday on a panel during an industry Summit here co-hosted by Broadband Breakfast and CalMatters.

Convoluted government red tape has been a persistent hurdle for the industry, according to Adams.

In 2009, Adams directed the construction of a Middle Mile network in Maryland through the American Recovery And Reinvestment Act. During the program, Adams faced difficulty acquiring permits and negotiating pole attachment agreements with multiple government offices.

California Broadband Summit
The event in Sacramento on Wednesday, June 5 is part of the CalMatters Ideas Festival on June 5-6, 2024.

According to Adams, some government offices did not have an adequate understanding of broadband infrastructure technology, slowing the process even further.

“The challenges are not new… the conversations are the same,” Adams said. “In a dozen years, we haven't really progressed to the point where we have solutions for how to easily streamline permitting, for how to easily reduce cost, for how to ease the deployment challenges.”

Adams put in a word for state officials by saying that from her experience, local governments have received misplaced heat from some in the industry. In reality, the sprawling bureaucracy of large federal agencies are generally responsible for slowdowns, Adams said.

Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA Fiber, also identified California as a uniquely difficult state to build infrastructure. In addition to arduous permitting processes, the state imposes a “layering” of requirements for development.

For example, California requires extensive government procurement processes for contracting labor, as well as greater regulation of materials. These compounding requirements are extremely time consuming and costly, according to Timmerman.

Regulation only becomes more difficult to navigate in high-density cities like San Francisco, which has many utilities that need to be accounted for.

During question-and-answer period, Timmerman encouraged city planners to future-proof infrastructure to expedite the rollout of broadband projects. As an example, Timmerman called for the installation of multipath conduits, so fiber cable can be inserted without having to tear up the road.

Panelist Bill Higgins, executive director of the California Association of Councils of Governments pushed back against industry “permit bashing,” which he called an essential part of the process.

“Usually permits are for a public purpose,” Higgins said. “Sometimes they’re annoying, but sometimes there’s some public value there too, and there can be a better balance.”

Higgins reminded the panel that potentially fatal accidents can occur from cutting corners on government standards.

“Everyone hates permitting for their own business, but they kind of understand it for other places,” Higgins said.

Higgins said the Southern California Association of Governments was working to create a more efficient process for issuing permits. Six counties are working on crafting a joint, regionwide ordinance for 211 cities. These ordinances would include uniform procedural criteria for prospective broadband infrastructure developers.

Adams also took time to praise California for maintaining a focus on middle mile broadband infrastructure, while other states have moved on to prioritize last-mile infrastructure.

“The emphasis on middle mile has actually fallen aside. However, we still have a tremendous need for middle mile infrastructure, and I applaud California for doing the hard thing,” Adams said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that AT&T Head of Network Chris Sambar had spoken on the California Broadband Summit panel. He had not. The sentence has been deleted.

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