June 1, 2023
In the wake of the bipartisan resolution on the debt ceiling, Congress now has the opportunity to take another timely and unifying step forward for our nation – one that will help ensure a connected economy in which everyone can fully participate in its many opportunities.
Nearly $42.5 billion in federal broadband infrastructure investment is poised to begin flowing to the states. This funding is essential to finish the job of connecting every home and business to high-speed internet. But a central determinant of this historic undertaking’s success has nothing to do with funding – and everything to do with something that’s proven far more elusive: bureaucratic expediency.
With broadband providers and communities ready, willing, and eager to proceed, the single most intractable barricade remains – the ability of the gears of government to grind all progress to a halt. Nowhere is this more glaringly apparent – or egregious – than in the painfully slow process of obtaining the permits broadband providers require to make internet for all a reality.
Permitting reform has a deep bipartisan bench of support on Capitol Hill. Binding this political alliance together are the rural communities these diverse legislators serve. Each has their own story of proacted delay to the detriment of their constituents. In a recent letter to federal agency heads, the longstanding frustration was palpable. Democratic Senator Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico noted federal permitting for broadband projects in his state can take between 16 and 48 months. Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming pointed to a broadband provider back home that regularly waits 12 to 36 months for a Bureau of Land Management permit. The list goes on. In Colorado, infrastructure providers are told to try again next year when perhaps there will be enough federal resources to consider their request. In Utah, one provider waited almost three years for permission to repair an existing fiber optic line on federal lands.
This is a pressing problem that Congress can, should, and must fix now.
A functioning government is a non-partisan mandate. Permitting reform has the support of 3 in 5 American voters, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. This includes roughly half of Democrats and nearly 7 in 10 Republicans.
And the legislative fix is straightforward: put a 60-day shot clock on the application process. The relevant federal agency can say yes or no. After 60 days without action, the permit is deemed granted, and the critical infrastructure work proceeds.
Federal permitting reform would make it clear that when the nation puts its intentions and resources into completing a critical task, the response from permitting agencies must be to step up to the plate to meet the challenge. Timely action from Congress would send a clear signal that the gears of government can and will function to get the big things done.
With a third of our nation’s land under federal control, federal reform is an essential piece of the puzzle. So is state and local leadership. As states prepare to distribute federal funds, they must work with cities and localities to streamline and expedite review and approval processes, as required for the BEAD.
Many already are. One positive example is Indiana’s Broadband Ready Communities Program, which certifies communities as having taken steps to reduce barriers to broadband investment. This will help ensure no time is wasted in translating federal resources into shovels in the ground and fiber to the home.
When pushing over the finish line, it’s important to keep the end goal in sight. Yes, this is about putting $42.5 billion in taxpayer dollars to their best, highest, and most efficient use. But reform would also work to encourage broadband providers to continue to invest, $86 billion in 2021 alone, each year in communities across the nation. In terms of Congress’ imperative to act, only one figure really matters: the millions of people still waiting to join the high-speed connected world. With the Infrastructure Act, we as a nation made a promise to them. Now we need to take the actions necessary to see that commitment through.
The choice before Congress is clear: fix the problem or be part of the problem. They can kick the can down the road or stand with their colleagues who are speaking up – loudly – about the true cost of these delays. With timely action, Congress can deliver a much-needed win for our country – not for a government that’s more left or more right, but one that simply works for all of us.