There is at least one issue on Capitol Hill bringing together Republicans, Democrats, the tech industry and even the White House: Legislation to expand high-speed Internet access nationwide, especially for rural, tribal and other remote areas.
The push comes in the wake of a new report that noted an estimated 25 percent of households do not have access to broadband either because of prohibitive costs or limited availability.
Broadband expansion has been a signature initiative of the Obama administration, and now Congress is hopping on board with the effort, pressing legislation that aligns closely with recommendations made in a White House report released in September.
“Much of the easy work has been done,” says the report. “Lowering barriers to deployment and fostering market competition can drive down price, increase speeds, and improve service and adoption rates for all markets,” it continues.
The recommendations were the result of work by the Broadband Opportunity Council, created by President Barack Obama in March to develop a strategy for delivering high-speed Internet to areas that lack it.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology has started work on a series of bills aimed at improving broadband expansion by allowing more access to federal lands and infrastructure and streamlining the permitting processes.
So far, the bill that appears to have the most momentum is HR 3805, the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act, designed to expand high-speed Internet access by requiring states to consider installing broadband conduits at the same time federally funded highway projects are under construction.
Lawmakers hope the so-called dig-once legislation would save money and encourage broadband investments by reducing the costs for providers to put more cables underground.
“It is so common sense that I wonder why we didn’t come up with this a decade ago,” said ranking Democrat Anna G. Eshoo of California, who sponsored the dig-once bill along with Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore. The bill, which was endorsed by the committee on both sides of the aisle, has more than 25 co-sponsors. Eshoo introduced similar bills in 2009 and 2011.
Though the bill didn’t pass on those two previous attempts, it did provide some inspiration for a similar executive order issued in June 2012.
The order requires federal agencies to ensure that broadband infrastructure projects coincide with highway construction whenever possible to reduce companies’ costs of expanding their high-speed Internet networks.
The dig-once legislation, however, goes further than the executive order. It would specifically require states to evaluate the need for broadband conduit — a pipe that could hold fiber-optic cables — to be installed at the same time as a federally funded highway construction project. If the evaluation shows the need to install the pipes in that area in the next 15 years, it would have to be installed at the same time as the highway construction.
Large portions of broadband networks run through the public right-of-way in the space next to highways or directly underneath the roadways, depending on the amount of space available. The Federal Highway Administration has estimated that digging up and rebuilding roads can contribute to 90 percent of the costs for expanding broadband networks.
Walden said piggybacking the two projects “will reduce the costs of broadband deployment significantly.”
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