Without the required physical infrastructure, there can be no mobile broadband service.
By: Tim Donovan, VP of Legislative Affairs, CCA
Americans today depend on reliable mobile broadband services not only to connect with each other, but also for critical public safety, economic, and educational needs. As consumersincreasingly demand mobile broadband services for everyday life, our infrastructure policies must be consistent with the important goal of providing robust mobile services nationwide.
Wireless carriers desperately want to give consumers what they want – what they need, including providing necessary coverage for emergency services. But there are often obstacles to overcome, including delays or other barriers when attempting to deploy, upgrade, maintain, or expand their networks. To fill the broadband gap, policymakers have long looked to federal lands, facilities, and other assets as potential locations to site services, yet challenges remain as carriers try to work through myriad federal agencies and processes.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of challenges CCA members encountered when applying through federal agencies to deploy facilities on federal lands.
· Lost or missing tower siting applications
· Tower siting applications that languish for unreasonably long periods of time without a determination for approval or denial
· Tower siting applications or projects that have been submitted but the relevant agency has not provided primary point of contact for communication
· Initial tower site locations are rejected, only to be determined months (and sometimes years) later as the most reasonable site for that facility – or vice versa
· Lack of application standardization and/or streamlined processes across agencies
· Inconsistent or undisclosed rules across agencies or even within the same agency
· Requiring new permits to upgrade existing facilities
· Denied projects due to concerns of disturbing “protected” lands or environments, even when the “disturbance” would occur along recently constructed roadways or other already disturbed environments
· Redundant historical or environmental reviews causing unnecessary delays and increased costs
· Potential fines, forfeitures, defaults, or foregoing deployments – even when deployment of services is required by one federal agency, through buildout deadlines or broadband deployment support programs – because another federal agency is unable or unwilling to provide a determination on an application within a reasonable timeframe
Congress, the FCC and the current Administration all share the laudable goal of ubiquitous mobile broadband service, but this cannot be accomplished without a reasonable process and certainty regarding deployment on federal lands. Did you know that, according to the Congressional Research Service, roughly 635-640 million acres of land – 28% of the United States – are owned or managed by the federal government? That’s a lot of real estate. Further, significant swaths of this geography are located in rural and remote areas, where wireless service may otherwise be unavailable and needed for safety concerns.
CCA members are ready and willing to bring wireless services to these unserved or underserved areas. And yet, it is the rural and regional carriers that often have experienced challenges working with the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior, and other agencies as they work to deploy mobile broadband services. Several agencies have recently collaborated on ways the Executive Branch can support broadband investment. This is a good first step. Now, we need additional guidance from Congress to help speed deployment by harmonizing and streamlining processes across agencies.
So what specifically can be done?
Both the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology currently are considering a range of legislative solutions to solve these infrastructure challenges, and CCA supports moving forward on these solutions to support deployment, particularly on federal lands and facilities.
Enacting, implementing and enforcing shot clocks for applications with federal agencies increases certainty and allows carriers to plan their deployment. Importantly, should an application be denied for a valid reason, carriers should be notified within a reasonable timeframe as directed by the Supreme Court. While reasonable applications should be approved, any denial should take place within a set timeframe, and include written evidence and an explanation at the time of the determination. These policies are already required and upheld by the courts with state and local authorities, and should be in place at the federal level.
As required by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, the Government Service Administration recently released master standard forms, contracts, and fee schedules for siting wireless facilities. Federal agencies should be required to utilize these forms, which will standardize and streamline processes for carriers that must work within and across several agencies.
Database of Federal Lands and Assets
In some areas, towers and infrastructure may be utilized for other purposes, but are not currently accessible for carriers to deploy mobile broadband services. Providing carriers with information that these tower siting facilities exist and may be available for mobile broadband deployment would prove efficient and cost effective in using existing infrastructure and rights-of-way. Opening up these assets for deployment will not only increase wireless coverage, but can open new economic opportunities. For example, accessing a tower at a national park would help to connect Americans visiting the parkland, while allowing the park to connect with those visitors, and also allow Americans to reach 911 in case of an emergency. Importantly, a database of federal lands and assets is only as valuable as the accuracy and comprehensiveness of its inputs – such a database must be maintained and updated as appropriate.
Point of contact
Upon filing an application, a carrier might not be given a contact for navigation within the agency as the process moves forward. Establishing responsive points of contact can support cooperation between the carrier and an agency, and also ensure that applications do not languish.
Streamlining Historical and Environmental Reviews
In instances where ground already has been disturbed, or when tower siting applicants are seeking merely to upgrade or collocate on another tower, there may be opportunities to streamline historic and environmental reviews. An efficient application review process will protect important goals while using resources to effectively expand services.
Where federal infrastructure projects are underway, such as highway construction, it only makes sense to take advantage of the opportunity to deploy broadband infrastructure. Not to mention,dig once also saves time, and reduces costs and expenses to build out information access as well.
CCA supports pending legislative efforts to ease broadband deployment challenges. As the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications and Technologymarks up legislation this week and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee continues its consideration of the MOBILE NOW Act, CCA stands ready to assist and support enacting solutions.
CCA encourages its own members to TAKE ACTION and urge their Members of Congress to move forward on legislative solutions to ease broadband deployment on federal lands and facilities.