Whoa – the fiber permitting process could crush digital divide dreams

At a Fiber Broadband Association webinar this week, an executive with extensive fiber project experience laid out so many challenges to the permitting process in order to lay fiber in unserved areas, listeners were left feeling like the process was so daunting, maybe they should quit before they even start.

Alex Herrgott, president and CEO of the non-profit organization The Permitting Institute, said, “The process is so complicated, in order to demystify it you need a PhD.”

He said organizations that embark on a fiber deployment project to unserved areas may have to interact with multiple federal, state and local agencies, none of whom coordinate together, and none of whom are at all concerned about the time-value-of-money for the company that has capital on the line.

Herrgott gave some examples of issues that might come up during a fiber project. While the team is waiting for a licensing decision from the NTIA, it may have to get a water analysis from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over trout, might have to do an analysis because the fiber trench needs to cross a small stream. But, if that stream is near the ocean, the National Marine Fisheries Service may have to get involved. And there could be an endangered species act issue. These are just some potential issues that might arise because of a small stream.

“They’ll all have their separate biologists and separate contractors all evaluating the same project with no coordination,” said Herrgott. “And you know who pays for those documents? The project sponsor.”

He added, “No one in the last 30 years has gone in and taken a hard look at the overlapping nature and redundancy of these statutes that hold capital back and raise the cost of debt equity for those that are actually operating in the telecommunications broadband.”

According to Herrgott, the current cost for a simple fiber project that’s alongside an existing right-of-way is about $30 million a mile. “It shouldn’t take six months to get that initial approval from the Department of Transportation that it’s OK to do an initial trench dig in an existing right-of-way that has no environmental impacts,” he said. “That should be turned around in a week.”

After hearing Herrgott’s presentation, Gary Bolton, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, said, “What you’ve laid out seems like an almost impossible gauntlet of permitting to get through. I’m kind of flabbergasted at the bureaucracy.” He noted that Congress has passed the infrastructure bill with $65 billion dedicated toward broadband to close the digital divide, “and the amount of time suck and resources that’s going to be spent on permitting is kind of unnerving.”

RELATED: U.S. government funding sources for broadband

Speaking with FierceWireless in September, CCA President Steve Berry said the average time frame for a fiber deployment in rural areas is from five to 10 years. He said members of CCA have case studies related to permitting that are “horror stories.” Berry said that one-third of the U.S. land mass is controlled by the government through various agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

Is there a solution?

After Herrgott laid out the dismal state of affairs in terms of getting the appropriate permits to lay fiber, he said that The Permitting Institute (TPI) is working on solutions.

“Our mission is just to enhance coordination across federal and state decision makers,” he said. “As it stands now, the way it works, nobody talks to each other.”

TPI works alongside all stakeholders, including project developers, trade associations, non-governmental organizations, and government officials at the federal, state, local, tribal and municipal levels.

TPI has project flowcharts and geographical screening tools as well as a schedule management tool where all government stakeholders would share information with the project’s owner. “It brings in and itemizes all the problems that you’re going to have on the front end,” said Herrgott. “If you know what all those sticky wickets are going to be, you can knock them down one by one instead of having them be surprises throughout the process or at the very end when you can least afford it.”

He noted that a model will also be helpful because permitting is not static. There are emerging regulations that are undoing what was done in the last administration and new regulations that are creating new ambiguity. The tool could actually be helpful for government agencies, as well, because most of them are experiencing severe staffing shortages.