A coalition of tech and free-market groups on Tuesday urged the leaders of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee to support “dig once” and other policies they believe would better enable the deployment of broadband along federally funded highways.
The coalition, which includes TechFreedom, R Street Institute, Niskanen Center and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, sent the letter to the panel in advance of a hearing on infrastructure programs.
The hearing discussed such broadband legislation as the draft bill from U.S. Rep. Ana Eshoo, D-Calif., and Greg Walden, R-Ore., that would require crews to install conduit — tubes designed to group and protect large amounts of wiring and fiber — while building highways or roads, if the area is lacking in broadband access.
For an extra cost of about 1 percent of a road project, installing conduit may change the cost structure for private providers to better encourage them to deploy broadband in less profitable areas, the coalition wrote, also noting the conduit can be leased to those providers to recoup costs. They point to a study from the Government Accountability Office that said dig-once policies can reduce the cost of deploying fiber under highways in urban areas by as much as 33 percent and by 16 percent in rural areas.
“Whether to deploy a new network (or upgrade an existing network) is always a microeconomic question decided on the margins: even relatively small cost reductions could be decisive as an incumbent or potential new entrant attempts to obtain the capital necessary to deploy broadband to a particular area,” the coalition wrote.
The letter also touts the MOBILE NOW Act from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., which would require state transportation departments, as a condition of receiving federal highway funds, to establish processes for coordinating access to federal rights of way to make it easier to install conduit or fiber under or along roads.
“There is no silver bullet for deployment challenges,” said Tom Struble, TechFreedom’s policy counsel. “Promoting deployment requires coordination at all levels of government, and rural Kansas will always pose different obstacles than the hilly streets of San Francisco. Nonetheless, bills like the draft put forward by Rep. Eshoo, and Sen. John Thune’s MOBILE NOW Act, seek to create the right framework for boosting deployment by making smarter use of public assets and requiring states to play an active role in coordinating broadband infrastructure deployment on government lands.”
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, ranking Democrat on the full Energy and Commerce Committee and a recipient of the letter, criticized President Donald Trump and House Republicans’ first steps toward rural broadband expansion during Tuesday’s hearing.
As The Hill reported, Pallone said Trump’s budget blueprint takes a step backward by proposing cuts in funding for agencies that work to improve high-speed internet access in underserved areas, often through more government involvement.
“Unfortunately, the Trump administration is ignoring the needs of the people in rural America and tribal lands,” Pallone said. “The president’s budget would brutally cut off agencies like the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission.”
Pallone contends that tax incentives — a popular proposal to lure private providers to up their rural broadband efforts — won’t be enough to move the needle.
“I have seen some suggest that tax incentives will somehow increase broadband in rural and tribal areas,” Pallone said. “But tax cuts alone won’t get it done — especially in areas where there is not a strong business case, like tribal lands.”