New legislation aims to fast-track broadband permitting process

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming have jointly proposed a bill to simplify the cumbersome permitting process for broadband infrastructure projects on federal land.

The CLOSE THE GAP Act—or the Closing Long Overdue Streamlining Encumbrances to Help Expeditiously Generate Approved Permits Act—would encourage land management agencies to create regulations that streamline the broadband application process.

The legislation would also remove a tracking requirement under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. Currently, any broadband project that exceeds $200 million must create a permitting timetable to map out deployment and set up regular meetings with permitting agencies to ensure goals are hit on time. The CLOSE THE GAP Act would ensure that “communications projects be considered with increased significance when establishing timetables.”

The proposed bill would create a designated fund at the U.S. Department of Treasury for each agency responsible for managing federal lands. These agencies would deposit fees collected from renting out land and processing applications for broadband projects. 

If passed, the CLOSE THE GAP Act would set up a working group between each federal land management agency to meet regularly to coordinate and expedite the review of applications.

“In Wyoming, half of the land is owned by the federal government. There is a significant gap in internet service and in some cases no service at all,” said Senator Barrasso in a statement. “It shouldn’t take years for internet service providers to get approval to install or make simple repairs on federal land.”

Industry groups and broadband companies have long lamented the permitting process for network buildouts, and those concerns have only been amplified as a surge of public and private infrastructure funding continues to hit the market.

"One of the biggest challenges facing new broadband networks is the paperwork, specifically the environmental reviews and permitting approvals needed before construction can start," said the Fiber Broadband Assocation in a post last month.

Eric Beightel, the executive director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, earlier this year said the council is working on a number of initiatives to ensure permitting moves as smoothly as possible for Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program projects.

Title 41 of the FAST Act established the Federal Permitting Council, which serves as a coordinating body for the 13 federal agencies that play roles in the process of delivering infrastructure projects.

According to Beightel, the council is spending $25 million to help federal agencies staff up for the impending influx of permit applications that will come with BEAD. Additionally, Beightel said the Permitting Council is working to develop best practices for permitting and is working with states to identify opportunities for agencies to standardize their permitting processes.

Beightel also noted the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act included $350 million in funding for the council to fund its efforts over the course of nine years. While the council – as a federal entity – has little power to influence state governments, he said it can use some of this funding to help state and local entities reform their permitting processes with grant money.