Broadband deployment is a local problem, and the FCC is here to help

1 February 2017 by Steve Blum
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Top. Men.

Cities and counties will be getting a ton of advice from the Federal Communications Commission. Yesterday, in one of his first initiatives as chairman, Ajit Pai announced the formation of an industry committee charged with identifying “regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment and to make recommendations to the Commission on reducing and/or removing them”.

But he’s not firing up his weed whacker for a run at the FCC’s rulebook. Instead, he’s taking aim at local governments. According to Pai’s statement

One of the first things the [committee] will be asked to do is draft for the Commission’s consideration a model code for broadband deployment. This model code will cover topics like local franchising, zoning, permitting, and rights-of-way regulations. Building, upgrading, and deploying broadband networks isn’t easy, and red tape often can make the task harder than it needs to be. Similarly, many localities that have a strong interest in promoting a digital economy within their borders may not have the resources or expertise to develop and implement deployment-friendly policies. Consumers ultimately pay the price in terms of less access to next-generation services. Our hope is that with a model code approved by the FCC, one that any city could use as a template, the case for broadband deployment would be much easier, especially for communities that seek to proactively encourage it.

There are two ways to look at the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee’s mission statement. It could be interpreted as a follow on to the community broadband initiatives launched, but not diligently pursued during the Obama administration.

Okay, just kidding.

All you really need to know about the direction the committee will take can be found in the list of the sort of people encouraged to apply for membership. Rural and urban ISPs “that use licensed or unlicensed spectrum, fiber optics, copper wires, or coaxial cables, or any other means to offer high-speed broadband service” get first billing, followed by network builders and lobbyists industry trade associations. You can find local governments tucked in between federal, state and tribal agencies down towards the bottom.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I think developing model policies for local governments to consider is a fine thing to do, and telecoms companies can add valuable insight to the conversation. If the end result is a thick book of draft policy, it could be useful. If not, local governments don’t generally have a problem with ignoring unhelpful advice from Washington, DC or anywhere else.

The danger is that Pai and his colleagues will flex their regulatory muscles and use the book as a template for further federalisation of local broadband planning and policy. There’s already a proceeding underway aimed at wireless deployment, and preemption of state and local governments in that regard, at least, has bipartisan support. Pai is looking at least one step beyond.