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House Republicans and Democrats debated more funding, removing environmental reviews and putting a “shot clock” on approvals in an effort to get the $42 billion in funding to much-needed broadband projects faster.
With more than $42 billion in funding being distributed to states by the end of June to expand broadband around the country, House Republicans are pushing for changes to make the permitting process easier and faster.
“While funding is a key piece to the puzzle, it’s not enough to make sure people have access to broadband,” Rep. Bob Latta, an Ohio Republican and chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications & Technology, said during a recent hearing.
“Without changes to the permitting process and meaningful oversight, all of this money set aside for broadband could be wasted,” said Latta, adding that Congress “missed” an opportunity to streamline the permitting process when it created the funding in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
While Democrats do not necessarily disagree with the concept of letting companies build broadband faster, they differ on how to go about it.
“It’s clear that there are ample opportunities to support a more predictable permitting process, especially at the federal level,” said Rep. Doris Matsui of California, the top Democrat on the subcommittee. “But the mayors that reach out to me are ready to do whatever it takes to get the residents connected. These local governments understand the challenges they face better than anyone else. They know where broadband is available, where it's not and the barriers they face to connectivity. I believe we must be supporting, not limiting their efforts.”
Republicans Want to Put ‘Shot Clock’ on Permit Approvals
Matsui and other Democrats at the hearing said House Republicans are drafting what one called a “cornucopia” of 30 bills, which would, among other things, exempt broadband projects from being subject to environmental reviews on federal lands and and create a “shot clock” on state and local governments to quickly approve permits or else see those projects automatically move ahead.
In a letter last month to Latta, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors said they do support “efforts to appropriately speed infrastructure deployment on federal lands and minimize red tape for projects requiring federal permits.”
The groups added, however, that they “oppose heavy-handed federal overreach into local land use permitting [decisions.]”
“Our point is that Congress need not get involved,” Gerard Lederer, a telecommunications consultant who works with the association of mayors, said in an interview.
For their part, Democrats and local governments are particularly worried that a time limit on permit approvals would destroy state and localities’ leverage in being able to negotiate with broadband providers. That, in turn, would weaken their ability to get companies to address issues like “digital redlining,” in which wealthier areas have better service.
The experience of New York City and Los Angeles illustrates the disparity that can happen when local officials don’t have power to leverage with companies, said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil rights organization. New York state, he said at the hearing, allows cities to approve franchises for broadband companies, while California approves companies offering broadband at the state level. In Los Angeles, less than half of households have high-speed internet. “[But] New York City is pushing fiber to hundreds of thousands of low-income households,” he said.
Democrats Argue for More Funding
A better way to speed up permitting, Democrats say, is to send state and local governments more money to hire the workers necessary to process the applications in a timely manner.
“Unless permitting agencies at the federal, state, local or tribal levels get additional resources for personnel and training, we're not going to fully address delays in permitting for broadband,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., the top Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
A bill proposed by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Texas Democrat, would create a grant program for state and local governments to hire more permitting staff and to buy technology for processing applications.
Permitting Delays Are Most Acute in Rural Areas
Delays in getting permits are particularly difficult for smaller companies providing broadband in rural areas.
One of the changes that would help the smaller companies the most, said Michael Romano, executive vice president of NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, would be streamlining the process to obtain federal permits. Regardless of how slightly a project infringes on federal land, he said, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act require permits that can add more than a year to the process.
For example, one of the companies in Romano’s association had to get a permit from the Bureau of Land Management to run fiber under a road on federal land. The agency kept asking for more information, drawing the permitting process out for more than a year. Another project was held up for nine months awaiting approval under NEPA. Then the ground froze, Romano said, which held up the project another five months.
In addition, some states charge more for permits than the cost to process the permit. “Providers can face lengthy and frustrating delays and the need to expend substantial sums beyond the actual costs of construction to access federal lands, or other rights of way, for broadband deployment,” Romano said, adding that Republican bills would give broadband companies more certainty that permitting will not not slow down projects.
But Romano agrees that more money to hire workers is crucial. Agencies do not have enough people to process the permits quickly, he said. In one western state, the Bureau of Land Management has only two staff people to process permits to build broadband and to extract oil and gas.
“Communication with permitting offices and agencies can fall silent for long stretches of time regarding the status of applications or what else might be needed to deem an application ‘complete,’ despite repeated inquiries by providers and their engineers and contractors,” he said.
Republicans Want to Exempt Some Projects from Environmental Reviews
The Biden administration has acknowledged that permitting is an issue. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is administering the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funds, has told states that their applications for the funds will have to include a plan to “reduce costs and barriers” to building broadband, including streamlining their permitting processes and reducing their fees.
Several of the Republican bills being considered by the subcommittee exempt projects from environmental reviews as a means of speeding up permitting.
A bill being worked on by Rep. Russ Fulcher, an Idaho Republican, would exempt broadband projects on federal lands from being reviewed to see if they comply with NEPA and the historic preservation act. Another bill pushed by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican, would exempt projects to rebuild wifi connectivity that was damaged in wildfires from environmental reviews.
“This is a historical opportunity in our nation's history to connect all Americans, and we cannot allow permitting delays and unnecessary cost to mess it up,” she said at the hearing.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com
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