Broadband permitting just got a little easier, thanks to feds

  • The ACHP released an amendment to its Program Comment for Communications Projects on Federal Lands and Property

  • The amendment makes it more flexible for federal agencies to permit and approve broadband infrastructure projects

  • Pew analyst Jake Varn said ACHP’s move is the right call as permitting frequently delays projects and drives up deployment costs

The federal government wants to make the pain point of broadband permitting, well, slightly less painful.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) announced an amendment (made at the request of NTIA) to its Program Comment for Communications Projects on Federal Lands and Property, aiming to help federal agencies “efficiently” permit and approve wired and wireless infrastructure deployments.

Originally published in 2017, the ACHP’s Program Comment is a document that’s assisted federal land and property managing agencies in complying with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies to identify and assess the effects their actions may have on historical buildings.

Agencies have consulted the Program Comment to figure out, for example, how to install aerial cable, bury cable in existing road, railroad and utility rights-of-way and remove old communications equipment and towers in a way that meets Section 106 compliance.

So, what’s new? ACHP said while the amendment doesn’t “substantially change” the procedures in Program Comment, it’s opening the door for more federal agencies to consult the doc – not just federal land and property managing agencies.

Now, the Program Comment applies to “any federal agency providing funding, licenses, authorizations, and approvals for projects that meet the Program Comment’s terms.”

Breaking down barriers

It’s no secret permitting is one of the biggest pet peeves for broadband providers, as it frequently holds up network deployments. But with the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program on the horizon, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

Jake Varn, associate manager with Pew’s broadband access initiative, told Fierce permitting processes are too often a barrier that “delay[s] infrastructure projects and balloon[s] costs, rather than striking the necessary balance between progress and protecting our environment and cultural resources.”

“We commend the AHCP for presenting common sense recommendations that address a complex and multi-jurisdictional challenge,” he said. “Further, we applaud efforts to limit redundancies - and therefore promote more efficient use of public monies.”

Trade groups ACA Connects and USTelecom both released statements in support of ACHP’s permitting guidance.

“This is great news for rural communities from NTIA,” said ACA Connects President and CEO Grant Spellmeyer, adding ACA members have asked NTIA chief Alan Davidson “to help lift permitting burdens on smaller providers who face heighted and unique challenges.”

For USTelecom’s part, CEO Jonathan Spalter said “it’s crucial to speed up the permitting process and lower barriers to broadband buildout, especially as more federal deployment funding dollars start to flow.”

ACHP isn’t the only agency trying to speed up permitting. The Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council announced in October it will dole out $155 million to federal agencies, allowing them to hire permitting experts and acquire “vital tools and resources” so they can review projects in time.