Telecom groups talk permitting reform, ACP extension with Congress

Officials from several broadband groups as well as former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) member Michael O’Rielly urged Congress to reform federal permitting processes and allocate more money to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). They argued both actions are necessary to ensure the country can achieve its goal of universal broadband access.

The push for change came during a hearing before the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, which focused on removing barriers to broadband deployments. Executives from NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) stressed the need for Congress to streamline environmental and historic preservation review processes. These, they said, have caused significant deployment delays stretching months or years.

NTCA EVP Michael Romano noted even delays of several months can be compounded by weather cycles in northern states with seasonal construction windows. In one case, an operator waited nine months for a permitting approval but couldn’t start construction for another five months because the green light came just before the start of winter.

Permitting timelines are set to become even more important with the release of billions in funding from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program. The program requires grant funding to be spent within a certain timeframe, but it’s possible extended permitting reviews could interfere with deployments.

Utah Congressman John Curtis recounted one instance in which an ISP received grant funds from a different program that it had to spend within five years but it ended up waiting nine years for approval to access an existing right of way.

NRECA SVP of Government Relations Louis Finkel noted permitting delays can also throw off budgeting due to inflation and access to materials due to supply chain constraints.

Curtis suggested environmental reviews could be turned over to the states to speed the process along, as they have been in some cases for transportation projects. Romano, meanwhile, argued for what he called “proportionality” in environmental and historic preservation reviews, especially when operators are looking to deploy in a previously disturbed right of way.

Extended reviews in these cases can “really contribute greatly to the cost of deploying a network in a place where it’s already been deployed before, it’s simply in many cases upgrading copper to fiber, for example,” he said. “So, those are two of the biggest delays that we see and in turn they result in a increase in costs for reasons that others have explained on this panel. That time delay leads to inflation and [increased difficulty in] the ability to procure supplies and having to re-find contractors.”

ACP extension

Beyond pressing for permitting reform, the industry panel also urged Congress to allocate more money to the ACP. While the subsidy program is already permanent, Congress only allocated $14.2 billion in funding for it. That money is expected to run out around mid-2024.

Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Legislative Counsel Ernesto Falcon, who testified alongside the telecom group representatives, said extending the ACP could “radically change” the calculations operators make when deciding where to deploy their networks. That’s because they could count on long-term revenue from customers who might otherwise be unable to afford broadband service.

The key, he said, is to ensure the ACP will be supported over the long term since operators tend to favor planning timelines of a decade or more rather than just a handful of years.

Former Commissioner O’Rielly, who now operates a consulting business, seconded the call for more ACP funding. He said while the FCC has had other subsidy programs in the past, the ACP is “the best we’ve had and I’d like to see Congress add more funds to it.”

Absent the program, he warned there will be a “portion of American families that will be challenged by the budgets that they face” and will be unable to afford broadband. The cascading impacts will touch not just consumers, but local government and business entities as well, he said.