Fiber providers vie for local permitting consistency and coordination

Aug. 24, 2023
Service providers have found that permitting can be a significant obstacle to getting fiber broadband to more consumers and business customers.

ORLANDO, Fla.—Fiber-based broadband has plenty for consumers and businesses to love—symmetrical speeds and the ability to scale. Today, 50% of Americans have access to fiber broadband. What’s more, with the efficient use of capital and public funds, every U.S. resident will be able to have fiber broadband by the year 2030.

A crucial part of this will be getting state and local government agencies to issue necessary permits. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the costliest parts of deploying networks are the sunken costs that come with public works and rights of way, making up about 60–80 percent of network deployment.

Marissa Mitrovich, VP of Public Policy for FBA, told attendees during the Fireside Chat: Permit Me to Ask panel during the Fiber Connect 23 show that the permitting system could be better.

“There’s many challenges service providers face with permitting delays and obstacles related to deployment,” she said.

The BEAD factor

One of the critical issues that is going to put pressure on state and local government permitting offices is the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

As the BEAD monies start to flow into local towns and cities, service providers will have to meet timelines to avoid penalties and other delays.

Google Fiber, which has been ramping back up on its fiber broadband efforts, said it is focusing more on local permitting.

Ariane Schaffer, public policy and government affairs for Google Fiber, said that permitting concerns will extend far beyond BEAD.

“The permitting processes in local communities existed before BEAD and will exist after the program wraps up,” she said. “There are these processes we have been working through for several years, and it’s critical because there’s multiple parts to a permitting process.”  

She added that what’s essential for all providers is to create bridges with the communities they have targeted to deploy services.

“It’s the relationship between the ISP and the local government when submitting a permit,” Schaffer said. “As additional public or private funding comes from BEAD or another source comes through, the industry will be pressure testing those systems through the entire country, which are all different.”

NextLink Internet, which provides services throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, sees similar issues.

Claude Aiken, Chief Strategy Officer for NextLink Internet, said the BEAD program challenges getting every element in place to meet the federal government timelines. “For BEAD, all your stakeholders must be aligned,” he said. “Permitting is a key piece of that because if you can’t get a permit, you can’t deploy.”

A key challenge is being able to navigate through the specific permitting nuances that exist in each community.

“It’s important in the local context because different localities have different approaches, capabilities and approaches to various providers,” Aiken said.

For instance, NextLink, in its engagement with a local municipality where it was planning a new fiber project, a competitive provider, began building in the right of ways without securing a permit. During that build, the service provider cut through various gas and water lines, disrupting the community.

This, in turn, has made it more difficult for NextLink even though the provider always takes the steps to abide by each community’s rules and regulations.

“This other provider’s mistake made the locality change its rules,” Aiken said. “Previously, where it had a city-wide permit to build, the city passed a new ordinance that requires every provider to resubmit permits for every 600 feet of fiber deployment.”

Vying for coordination

A lack of coordination has become another critical challenge for service providers. In any community, there will always be various agencies and departments that need to sign off on any permit.

Congress has started taking action to help coordinate the permitting process.

In May, the Energy and Commerce Committee advanced seven bills to streamline broadband permitting, expedite deployment and reauthorize the FCC’s Spectrum Auction Authority.

Schaffer said that “coordination is key.”

“You have lots of different parts of a community that have to weigh in on the permits,” she said. “When there can be a single point of contact in a community to pass along the information and ensure a provider is getting through the process, that is helpful.”

She added that transparency is also an issue. “When deployers submit their deployment plans, sometimes a community comes back and asks for other things to be resolved,” Schaffer said. “Communities need to make sure they are thinking about all the things they want to be asking for from the deployers and providers so there won’t be anything that could hold up a deployment.”

Aiken added that there should also be an understanding of timeframes for granting a permit. Service providers must deal with multiple entities—local government agencies, municipalities, highway authorities and water districts.

“As a provider, being able to project the time by which you are going to get something approved is critical,” he said. “When we talk about this in the context of BEAD, there’s a shot clock on funding, which means we have to line up our inventory, staff and contractors towards that deployment goal.”

He added that if “there’s an unknown variable, it can throw a wrench into the whole project.”