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

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

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

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