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Broadband Infrastructure Policy for the 21st Century

March 10th, 2010 by Thomas Koutsky - Senior Advisor, Omnibus Broadband Initiative

The broadband networks of the 21st century frequently depend upon the policies that government has for infrastructure that is decidedly 20th century—wooden utility poles, conduits underneath bridges, and easements alongside America’s roads and highways.  Because government controls and regulates many of these infrastructure inputs, there is a tremendous opportunity for enlightened public policy to spur and accelerate broadband deployment.  The draft Plan makes several recommendations that build upon successful efforts undertaken by state and local governments with regard to these important assets.

First, the Plan recommends a comprehensive approach for resetting government policy toward new network construction, which often depends upon access to government rights-of-way, buildings and facilities.

The Plan recommends that the federal government improve the process for locating broadband facilities on federal buildings and property.  The Plan also recommends that all federally-funded infrastructure projects, like bridges and roads, consider broadband build-out opportunities, such as laying conduit or joint trenching, as part of the project.

State and local governments have led the way on many of these infrastructure policies.  For example, in Western Massachusetts, 55 miles of fiber optic cable, with 34 local interconnection points, are now being laid because the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, and the U.S. Department of Transportation made it a point to plan for general broadband deployment when upgrading the traffic management system on that stretch of highway.

The Plan recognizes that there are a myriad of ways in which state and local governments set the fee rights-of-way access, and the Plan will not recommend any specific method or change as to how state and local governments set those fees today.  The Plan instead recommends that the FCC convene an intergovernmental task force of federal, state and local rights-of-way experts that will have the charge of cataloging these different fee structures, identifying rights-of-way policies and fees that are consistent and inconsistent with the goal of broadband deployment, and recommending guidelines and construction and maintenance practices that reduce cost and avoid unnecessary delays and inefficiencies.  We believe that there are tremendous opportunities for costs savings in the industry and hope that by discussing these issues in an open, collaborative forum will expedite deployment of broadband infrastructure.

Second, the Plan makes a number of recommendations designed to maximize utilization of existing infrastructure assets, such as poles and conduits that are controlled by private utilities.  Today, the FCC has the responsibility to ensure that utilities that control access to these infrastructure facilities offer them up to telecommunications and cable providers on just and reasonable rates, terms and conditions.  But the process can be slow and costly, and get bogged down in disputes that linger for months if not years.  These disputes go both ways—in addition to the needs of communication companies for timely and efficient access, electric utilities have legitimate concerns about safety that need to be addressed and enforced.  The Plan recommends several changes to the FCC’s pole attachment regulations that are designed to speed the process, facilitate the exchange of information between pole owners and attachers, lower costs, and resolve disputes efficiently.

It’s often easy to forget that the broadband—both fixed and wireless—and indeed the entire Information Economy ultimately rides over physical wires that need to be tacked onto poles, buried alongside roads, and carried over rivers and across mountains.  Broadband infrastructure is as real as bridges, tunnels and highways, and there are tremendous opportunities for affirmative changes in government policy that can really make a difference in the deployment of broadband deeper into America’s communities



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