An Important Step Forward for Broadband Infrastructure

Author: David Bartlett, VP Federal Government Relations

Congress took an important step this week to spur investment in broadband infrastructure by passing H.R. 4986, a wide-ranging package of telecom policies known as “Ray Baum’s Act.”  Named for the late Ray Baum, a Staff Director for the U.S. House Energy & Commerce Committee, former chair of the Oregon Public Utilities Commission, leader on tech and telecom policy, and dear friend who will be missed, H.R. 4986 will reauthorize the Federal Communications Commission and make a number of policy changes to facilitate the buildout of broadband infrastructure.

CenturyLink pays substantial fees for rights of way and access to federal lands and facilities. These fees increase the costs of providing high-speed Internet services to customers as we must pay more to construct, operate and upgrade our network, especially when deploying broadband in rural areas and on tribal lands. Simply keeping pace with rapidly rising broadband consumption in connected areas, network operators like CenturyLink must increase capacity significantly every year. Regulatory red tape slows investment in this infrastructure.

There are also a wide variety of lease terms and regulatory interpretations that can slow down the federal permitting process and create unnecessary delays. Removing delays and uncertainty from the federal permitting process would help lower the cost of broadband deployment, which in turn will create more American jobs through access to high-speed broadband. When we look at speeding up the process of obtaining these approvals, along with lower costs, we see a critical opportunity for broadband to be the economic equalizer of modern times.

Here are some of the solutions that Ray Baum’s Act brings:

  • Streamlining the process for obtaining permits and rights of way on federal lands and facilities, covering everything from replacing a copper line with fiber across federal property to reach a remote town, to placing small cells on an urban federal building to provide 5G wireless service in the community. The process includes a 270 day “shot clock” for agencies to decide on such permits, and a requirement to explain the reason when permits are denied. 
  • Ensuring the financial stability of the federal Universal Service Fund, which provides over $7 billion annually to support broadband and communications investments to rural and low-income communities by extending a longstanding exception to the Anti-Deficiency Act.
  • Promoting “dig once” policies that encourage states and local communities to include broadband conduits when building highways with federal funds. These policies allow providers access to open trenches so that they place facilities more efficiently, reducing the need to break ground and retrench later.  This can be especially helpful when passing “bottleneck facilities” like bridges or tunnels.  
  • Directing federal agencies to identify spectrum for reallocation to commercial use and facilitating the broadcast incentive auctions. While CenturyLink does not offer a retail wireless service, we play an essential role in providing the fiber “backhaul” to thousands of towers and building locations to enable such service.  

These are essential steps forward in a continuing effort by Congress to make it easier, faster, and more cost-effective to connect America to high-speed broadband. Finding a bipartisan consensus on Ray Baum’s Act was the fruit of many months of detailed work by leaders in the House and Senate, and represents significant contributions by the FCC, National Telecommunications and Information Administration and other parts of the administration.  We look forward to Senate passage and enactment of this bill. 

Beyond this week’s vote, the challenge continues. President Trump has announced an ambitious infrastructure initiative that could include billions for broadband construction. Individual agencies continue to explore creative ways to leverage other federal investments toward increased broadband. Congress is already considering dozens of additional bills that could eliminate obstacles, encourage investment and help consumers, students, entrepreneurs, and communities reap the benefits of broadband connection.  States should also look at rights of way, fees, and other burdens on infrastructure deployment. We look forward to working with all of these folks to help us connect more Americans to the power of the digital economy.