Broadband services

On Broadband, FCC Talks Carrots, Not Sticks

The FCC provided some much-needed clarity at today's meeting of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. Speaking on behalf of Chairman Ajit Pai's office, Senior Counsel Nicholas Degani declared that the agency's intention in creating model codes for broadband deployment is not to impose a federal mandate. Although the BDAC is tasked with providing recommendations for accelerating broadband rollouts nationally, the FCC does not intend to use those recommendations to assert new regulatory authority over cities and states.

"We're not talking about federal preemption. We're not talking about stepping in. What we're talking about are voluntary blueprints for cities and states to look to for guidance," said Degani. He added, "When we're talking about model codes, I want to be really clear. We're not talking about sticks. We're only talking about carrots."

The update from Chairman Pai's office helps clear up confusion over the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's role in upcoming wired and wireless network deployments. Namely, it assures states and cities that the federal government won't step in to override their jurisdiction when it comes to issues like assigning fees to telecom providers in exchange for access to utility poles and creating timelines for pole attachment permit approvals.

While the current FCC, on principle, isn't interested in creating new regulations, it is heavily focused on aiding the telecom industry in that group's efforts to make more broadband services available. Creating a federal model for future deployments would make life easier for telcos -- both incumbents and potential new entrants to the broadband market -- who hate having to deal with different rules for deployment in every municipality across the country. However, it would also preempt the authority of state and local officials, who have strong opinions of their own on how access to public rights of way should be granted.

San Jose CIO Shireen Santosham at the mic at the FCC's Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) meeting.
San Jose CIO Shireen Santosham at the mic at the FCC's Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) meeting.

Of the participants on the BDAC, those representing municipalities were particularly happy with the FCC's clarification. However, the update didn't mitigate their concerns about the trend toward states preempting municipal authority. For example, Shireen Santosham, CIO for the city of San Jose and an alternate to the committee for San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, pointed out that new state laws that impose caps on utility pole access fees can have unfortunate consequences, like threatening the revenue that cities intend to use to fund digital inclusion initiatives.

As officials from the city of Austin have previously explained, low state caps can even make it difficult for municipalities to recoup their own costs in managing the permitting process, particularly as the volume of requests is predicted to explode with the emergence of 5G wireless networks. (See Battle Begins for Small Cells, Smart Cities.)

Santosham also noted that there are only seven municipality representatives assigned to the BDAC process, and she suggested that, "The voice of municipalities perhaps needs to be broader."

Others on the FCC committee also piped up with the same concern. Perhaps most surprisingly, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) Vice President for Regulatory Policy David Don pointed out that if the group wants cities to employ the model codes that are developed, it will very much help to have their buy-in from the beginning.

"I think this is a serious risk right now. We have a lot of groups who are concerned that they're not at the table," said Don. "I think if just at the end we present a model code to the municipalities and they feel they've had an insufficient amount of input, it's going to go nowhere."

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From a telecom industry perspective, Kelly McGriff, General Counsel at Southern Light (now Uniti Fiber ), did emphasize at the BDAC meeting that service providers need a better way to accelerate the process of deploying broadband equipment. He recounted T-Mobile US Inc. 's experience with a "large American city" where the company is currently at 120 days and counting in trying to get permit approvals to install equipment that would bring connectivity to an underserved community. That, he suggested, is a case where having a statewide rule limiting permit approval timelines would be helpful.

Jonathan Adelstein, CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, also pointed to the fact that ten states currently have such laws on the books, and recommended that BDAC participants consider those laws in their model code development.

But again, municipal representatives expressed their concern over state-level mandates.

"To me," said the committee's newest member Andy Huckaba, City Council member from Lenexa, Kansas, "it feels a little bit like [the states are saying] 'we're going to grab this.' "

The multiple working groups within the BDAC are scheduled to present their recommendations on accelerating broadband deployment to the full committee in October or November of this year. After that, the committee will deliberate and vote on final recommendations to provide to the FCC.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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