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Crapo, Risch, colleagues call for expanded high-speed Internet access in rural communities

Washington, DC–US Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch (both R-Idaho) joined Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) in a letter to the secretaries of the US Department of the Interior, Agriculture and trade to the need to expand high-speed Internet access in rural communities.

Internet providers are obliged to obtain federal approvals for the construction of telecommunications infrastructure on federal land or for projects with federal funds. They are currently facing significant delays in the permitting process. In their letter, the senators encourage the Biden administration to streamline the permitting process, close the digital divide, and roll out high-speed internet in rural areas across the country.

According to the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) latest Broadband Deployment Report, approximately 14.5 million Americans in rural areas do not have access to basic broadband servicewrote the senators. “Many of our communities rely on right-of-way and utility corridors through states for transportation and essential utilities.”

It is vital that we close the digital divide by expanding access to high-speed internet – a top priority for our rural areas – and we cannot do that without improving the permitting processcontinued the senators. “We urge you to build on recent action by Congress and various federal agencies to streamline permitting to state lands.”

Other signers of the letter are US Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming), John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) and Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), Shelley Moore Capito (D-West Virginia), Patty Murray (D-Washington), Mike Braun (D-Indiana), Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nevada), Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota).

The full text of the letter is below.

Dear Minister Haaland, Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Raimondo,

Today we write about the significant delays Internet Service Providers face in obtaining permits. As you know, these permits are required when installing telecoms infrastructure on federal states or for projects seeking federal funding through a variety of broadband deployment programs. It is vital that we close the digital divide by expanding access to high-speed internet – a top priority for our rural areas – and we cannot do that without improving the permitting process.

According to the Federal Communication Commission’s latest broadband rollout report, about 14.5 million rural Americans do not have access to basic broadband services. However, due to attribution issues, this number can be significantly higher. Additionally, as reported by the Congressional Research Service, the federal government owns 45.9% of the land in 11 western states and about 28% nationwide. Many of our communities rely on right-of-way and utility corridors through states for transportation and essential utilities. Additionally, duplicate permitting processes are delaying broadband infrastructure approvals and drastically slowing down efforts to close the digital divide, particularly in federal states.

Over the years, Presidential Administrations have identified opportunities to streamline this approval process. Most recently, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) — the agency primarily responsible for advising the President on telecommunications matters — urged states and qualifying entities to “accelerate[e] Allowing Deadlines and Waivers[e] Fees provided they do not undermine other important policy objectives.” Federal agencies should similarly expedite permitting deadlines and waive fees consistent with existing environmental and monument protection laws.

The current process is having a significant impact on our communities. For example, an ISP in Wyoming regularly waits between 12 and 36 months for a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permit, and in New Mexico broadband projects on BLM or National Forest Service land can take anywhere between 16 and 48 months to get approved. In Utah, a contractor waited almost three years for approval from the US Forest Service to repair a fiber optic line on federal land. The forest service will often tell a Colorado provider that they do not have the resources to process an application and will instead review it the following year. Longer delays jeopardize broadband projects due to rising costs and can even result in a provider not meeting the expansion deadline associated with federal funding. This process shouldn’t take years.

In addition, rural broadband providers have reported significant delays between announcing an award and receiving the funds needed to deploy the proposed broadband networks. While the delays appear to occur at many steps in the process, those caused by environmental and heritage assessments contribute significantly to the long waits before funds are disbursed to an award winner. We urge you to expedite permit deadlines and waive fees in accordance with existing environmental and monument protection laws.

The burden of these delays is weighing heavily on small businesses and unprovided families in our most rural areas. Access to high-speed internet is crucial for economic development. The Internet is also critical to the education of our children as well as connecting Americans to their healthcare providers through telemedicine services. In the western United States, first responders are often called to areas in remote states with little to no access to communications networks. A lack of strong means of communication for our first responders is putting the public at risk, and these continued delays are making the problem worse.

We urge you to build on recent action by Congress and various federal agencies to streamline permitting to state lands. We are encouraged by the recent agreement to streamline permits for high-speed Internet projects in tribal lands, as well as the recently proposed rules announcement by BLM. To build on these advances, we request the following information regarding the permitting process:

  1. What are your plans to modernize the environmental assessment and permitting process to speed up the approval of applications for federal broadband projects?
  2. Do your respective agencies have sufficient manpower and resources to meet current legal and regulatory requirements for processing permit applications and meet the expected increase in permit applications for broadband projects in a timely manner?
  3. Do your respective agencies need additional funding or new legal powers to expedite approval?
  4. What is the escalation process to resolve potential permit bottlenecks and conflicts?
  5. In May 2022, the White House announced a Permitting Action Plan to expedite federal permitting and environmental reviews. The plan calls for the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council to improve inter-agency coordination to avoid potential bottlenecks and identify and share best practices. How do you use this existing program to address conflicts, improve communication and speed up the exchange of information between agencies?
  6. What measures are the Council and relevant authorities taking to reduce approval times and close the digital divide as quickly as possible?
  7. In August, the NTIA and BIA announced an agreement to coordinate responsibilities for ensuring compliance with environmental, historical preservation and cultural resource requirements related to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. Is there a similar agreement between the NTIA, FCC and the state agencies under the USDA and DOI?
  8. How many outstanding broadband infrastructure projects are awaiting permit approvals on federal states?
  9. What is the average time for authorities in your department to approve such permits?
  10. What is the average time between the announcement of a USDA ReConnect award and the final payment of funds to the applicant?
  11. What is the average time between the announcement of an NTIA Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program award and the final payment of funds to the applicant?
  12. How much time do you expect between an NTIA Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Award and the final disbursement of funds to the subgrant?

Thank you for your consideration of this matter. We look forward to your reply.

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