Permitting Council chief says it is gearing up to make BEAD a breeze

FIBER CONNECT, ORLANDO, FL – Permitting has long been the bane of broadband deployments across the country, but a little-known federal council is working to change that. According to Eric Beightel, the newly appointed executive director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, it’s looking to do so with a combination of funding and expertise.

Created in 2015, the Permitting Council oversees what is known as the FAST 41 program, which is designed to streamline the federal permitting process for large infrastructure projects by bringing together stakeholders from 16 member agencies.

Most broadband projects (with the exception of some Tribal initiatives) don’t qualify for FAST 41 treatment due to the program’s $200 million investment benchmark. But Beightel said during a keynote presentation the council is working on a number of other initiatives to ensure permitting moves as smoothly as possible for Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program projects.

These include spending $25 million to help federal agencies staff up for the impending influx of permit applications that will come with BEAD.

He 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.

Beightel said the Permitting Council has yet to establish the aforementioned grant program, but added “It is an opportunity for us to engage more directly with state and locals to ensure they have the resources and the tools they need to make this work.”

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. The idea is to ensure agencies are consistent and asking applicants for the same information to provide a predictable process. By way of example, Beightel pointed to the Permitting Council’s work with the state of California on its middle mile fiber project.

Beightel said he is also meeting with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) this week to ensure the council is adequately supporting BEAD needs. BEAD grants will notably be doled out by state agencies.