Regulatory policy

Funding and Policy Barriers Hinder Broadband Deployment in Rural America

Between the funding provided under the Trump administration and the recently passed infrastructure bill, billions of federal dollars have been allocated in recent years to extend high-speed internet service to unserved rural areas of the country. Lawmakers on both sides understand that closing the digital divide is essential for American consumers.

Now, with so much of our hard-earned taxpayers’ money already allocated to other important projects, it is imperative that we ensure that broadband money continues to be a top priority in order to provide services to unserved communities quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, hurdles such as slower utility pole regulations are preventing us from achieving our goal.

Power poles are the backbone of our country’s communications and power infrastructure – in order to expand broadband, service providers need efficient access to these poles to connect the technology needed. On given projects, suppliers must be granted access to poles by pole owners, under U.S. Code 47 Section 224. Where work has been done in years past to circumvent the rules towards efficiency, there is still a long way to go.

Broadband deployment can be slowed by bureaucratic delays during the permitting process and during pole access negotiations between providers and pole owners. Inconsistent rules and red tape drag out these processes far too long. There is room for improvement in these processes.

High-speed Internet is vital for everyday life and the modern economy. A recent Deloitte study assessing the impact of bridging the digital divide on the economy found that a 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration in 2014 would have created more than 875,000 American jobs and $186 billion more dollars in economic output in 2019. Broadband deployment in unserved communities is holding back the US economy.

DC lawmakers need to understand that the effort to bring broadband to unserved communities is just beginning. While there is a need to invest in solving this problem, additional attention must be given to reducing the bureaucracy that threatens to delay the rollout of much-needed broadband service. Congress and the Biden administration should assess what can be done to improve the process.

Legislators and regulators can establish a more consistent framework to eliminate delays. They can set consistent timelines for permits and pole access. Permit applications can be standardized, eliminating inconsistencies. Reliable guidelines for pole access permit approvals will establish a simpler process that accelerates broadband deployment. Finally, lawmakers should ensure that disputes between pole owners and suppliers are heard and resolved as quickly as possible. Currently, these disputes can remain unresolved for months or even years – prompt determination of whether applications are approved or denied is paramount to effective regulation.

We have an opportunity to close the digital divide once and for all and we have allocated billions of taxpayer dollars to this end, but a few bureaucratic hurdles still stand in our way. Our government leaders are about to change the lives of rural Americans for the better, and it’s time in history to bring this now-needed utility to every home and business across the country.