In his very first public meeting as FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai announced his intention to form a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) with the goal of drafting a "model code for broadband deployment." That BDAC group now officially exists, with Pai having named 29 members to the committee and scheduled the group's first meeting for April 21. (See FCC Names BDAC Members, Sets 1st Meeting.)
The BDAC has a tremendous agenda in front of it, with a goal of addressing barriers to broadband deployment and providing recommendations for accelerating Internet infrastructure rollouts at the state and local levels. Unfortunately, there are also several major challenges in the committee's way, any one of which could, in my opinion, deep-six the BDAC's efforts before the group even gets started.
First, there's the fact that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , not to mention the federal government as a whole, is currently in a mode of "light-touch" regulation. This hands-off approach makes sense when the market is doing an effective job of regulating itself, but when there are acknowledged challenges -- like those hampering the acceleration of broadband deployment -- a non-interference strategy can be actively harmful.
For example, pole attachment policies, which vary from locality to locality, are proving ruinous right now to many non-incumbent service providers. Some of these companies have fought back with one-touch make-ready (OTMR) proposals that are designed to speed up the process of attaching new telecom equipment to utility poles. However, those proposals are repeatedly challenged in court by incumbent ISPs, who want to maintain control over utility pole real estate. Without federal intervention, new market entrants have found themselves continuously bogged down in city-by-city fights. (See Broadband Has a Problem on the Pole.)
It's not always an issue of incumbent control either. Sometimes the biggest challenge to a new broadband deployment is simply figuring out how to address the administrative requirements of a local government. Consistency from municipality to municipality is non-existent, and there are things the federal government could do to help harmonize policies nationwide.
In a recent editorial piece published in The Washington Post, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Blair Levin and Internet industry analyst Larry Downes recommended that the federal government establish best practices that include having local governments provide a single point of contact to ISPs for negotiating access to city property and navigating local zoning processes. That recommendation strikes me as pretty low on the federal intervention scale. Perhaps it's something the BDAC would seriously consider in its deliberations.
Getting the FCC to contemplate federal regulations as a method for accelerating broadband deployment is one issue. But even if the FCC is open-minded, the second major challenge the BDAC group faces is trying to force collaboration between two camps that are already well entrenched. Incumbent service providers have virtually zero incentive to work with new market entrants when they know that any ground they give will make it that much easier for rivals to steal away market share.
I watched this exact situation play out in 2015 with the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC), the group in charge of recommending new set-top rules. There were two factions at the start of DSTAC meetings, and at the end, instead of a single consensus set of recommendations, there were two proposals put forth representing those two factions. (See DSTAC: 2 Opposing Views on the Future of TV.)
I suspect tensions will run even higher in BDAC meetings, particularly with the recent leadership changes at the FCC, and a sense that people on all sides are getting ready to dig in their heels as we simultaneously head toward a review of net neutrality and the Open Internet Order. (See Trump & Consequences.)
Third and finally, while I think creating the BDAC is a great idea in theory, I worry about what the group can accomplish outside of an infrastructure bill put forth by Congress. Accelerating broadband deployment will depend a lot on how Congress decides to invest in broadband infrastructure, and those potential investments are still very unclear.
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) noted recently that he doesn't believe there will end up being an infrastructure bill this year, in large part because of the many other priorities on the table for lawmakers. And even if there is, Schatz cautions that it's not likely to include significant new spending, but rather tax subsidies for lenders providing loans for infrastructure development. (See Sen. Schatz: No Big Infrastructure Bill Coming.)
Perhaps the BDAC group will be able to overcome all of the challenges ahead of it. Perhaps participants will be able to rise above their own differences for the sake of better nationwide broadband access. I'd like to think it's possible. But having watched Washington at work, I'm not optimistic.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading