Infrastructure Reform Means More Broadband for More Americans

Last week, I announced that the FCC will vote this month on an order that will reform the federal rules governing wireless infrastructure deployment. I am pleased to see the strong support this proposal has already received from a broad range of stakeholders, including National Grange, the Progressive Policy Institute, the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, and the Competitive Carriers Association.

This week, I had the chance to take a road trip through the Shenandoah Valley — a rural area along the western edge of my home state of Virginia. I got to see first-hand how the FCC’s proposed order will result in more broadband and in turn greater economic opportunity and jobs for communities across the Commonwealth and the country.

The first stop of the trip was in Waynesboro, Virginia. The city is tucked into a pass in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Shenandoah National Park. It’s beautiful — and feels far, far away from D.C.

On the way to Waynesboro

Gathered were business owners, local officials, and employees of Shentel, a local wireless provider.

One of the first people to speak was Doug, who lives with his family a few minutes from where we met. Doug said that he doesn’t have access to reliable high-speed broadband at home, and he described the ways that affects his life. His kids argue over who can be on the Internet when they get home from school because their existing connection doesn’t support multiple people. The kids stay at school as long as possible because that’s the only place where they can find a fast Internet connection. Back at home, Doug has trouble downloading large email attachments and doing online banking. Accessing broadband at work in the morning is “like drawing a breath of fresh air,” Doug said.

The supervisor of a nearby county spoke about how the lack of fast mobile broadband creates challenges for first responders. A few years ago, an Air National Guard F-15 crashed in the mountains in the eastern reaches of his county. The local volunteer fire-rescue team responded but couldn’t connect with command in real time because service was spotty. The team had to use their radios to relay messages every few miles as they attempted to rescue the downed pilot. The county supervisor told me that local officials and businesses keep asking for improved coverage.

One of the big challenges to bringing more high-speed Internet access to rural communities like Waynesboro is the high cost of deploying broadband infrastructure. Shentel workers told me that the regulatory costs to put up a single cell tower now total $45,000 to $90,000, and regulatory delays now stretch from 18 to 24 months. Dave Anthony, who founded and ran Shenandoah Tower Service for 34 years, told me that putting poles in the ground and building towers is the easy part; he can put up even a large tower in just 30 days.

The federal review process is a big part of this problem. Three years ago, federal historic preservation review resulted in around $1,000 in fees per site, according to an expert who has helped Shentel and other carriers in Virginia with cell site approvals. Those fees are now $5,000 and growing.

Unfortunately, Shentel’s experience is not unique. The record in the FCC’s proceeding shows that fees related to the federal regulatory review process have been rising exponentially in recent years. One expert showed that fees for just one part of the federal process increased from an average of $2,000 per site in 2011 to over $11,000 in 2017. This makes providing coverage to some rural areas impossible.

The wireless infrastructure order that the Commission will consider in a couple of weeks would bring needed relief. For traditional large cells, the order streamlines certain federal historic and environmental reviews, while leaving in place appropriate local review. For small cells — deployments that have a much different footprint than those 100-foot towers associated with traditional, macrocell deployments — the order updates our approach by excluding these types of deployments from those federal historic and environmental review procedures.

Small cells often are used to build 4G capacity and will be critical in delivering 5G coverage. Because of their size — similar to a backpack — and the fact that they’re most often mounted on existing poles and buildings, small cells don’t present the same issues as those larger deployments. Yet the Commission currently gives the backpack and the tower the same level of review.

Reforming our infrastructure rules will make a difference. In fact, Shentel’s analysis of the proposed order shows that cutting regulatory red tape could allow the company to deploy an additional 13 cells sites. That’s real coverage for rural communities. That could mean getting reliable, high-speed service to Doug or one of his neighbors. Or providing coverage to first responders that are working in a remote part of the state. And it will not just result in greater wireless broadband coverage. As Shentel deploys new sites, the company says that it will be running additional fiber to those locations and can pass homes or businesses with those fiber connections along the way.

The record in the FCC’s proceeding demonstrates that these same results will be replicated across the country. One provider showed that it has spent $23 million on federal regulatory review costs, even though none or virtually none of that expenditure resulted in any changes to a planned deployment. The provider says that this $23 million could have been used to deploy an additional 657 sites to add capacity or expand coverage for more Americans. Other providers confirm that the FCC’s proposed regulatory reforms will mean thousands of new cell sites.

The D.C. policy debate sometimes misses this point. If we want rural America to have the same opportunities as other parts of the country, we must make it easier to connect underserved communities. To see what difference fast, affordable service can make to rural America, I headed up I-81 to Woodstock, Virginia, to check out Central High — home of the Falcons.

Visiting Central High in Woodstock

Central High integrates technology into its entire curriculum. Students read material on their tablets, submit homework assignments through cloud drives, collaborate on online boards, and even listen to a teacher’s popular podcast. The results of this investment were obvious when I talked to a few juniors and seniors who want to pursue educations in STEM fields after they graduate. (They’ll be successful; these kids are smart.)

All of this high-tech learning requires fast wired and wireless Internet access. And so Shentel installed a small cell at the edge of Central High’s parking lot to meet the mobile demand. It’s a great example of how small cells already are being used in rural areas to deal with network congestion — whether at a high school, shopping mall, or basketball arena. Indeed, even in Shentel’s rural service territory, the company says that small cells are going to comprise an increasing percentage of the company’s deployments.

I took my first ride in a bucket truck to see one of Shentel’s small cell deployments up close. From a distance, you can look past a pole and not notice small cells. If you spot them, they look like any other nondescript equipment attached to a nondescript utility pole. An engineer explained how much technology they now can fit in the boxes, and what a difference that can make to serving growing mobile demand.

When I got safely back to the ground, the guys who operate the bucket truck told me about their work. They’re good jobs that require technical training. The guys I spoke with all had some experience with installing electrical equipment. They said they’re happy to be in demand. And Shentel said that the more small cells they can deploy, the more site technicians they can hire.

Yet our outdated federal regulations cost Americans millions of dollars that otherwise would be used to hire those technicians or deploy thousands of additional cell sites across the country — sites that can provide the first reliable, high-speed Internet access in an unserved area, introduce a new, competitive offering in an underserved community, or add additional capacity to a network.

As I headed up I-66 back to D.C., I thought a lot about how broadband access makes a difference to the people I met in western Virginia. Federal agencies work for them — we’re supposed to find ways to improve their lives, help them find jobs, and get a good education.

At the FCC, one way we can work for rural communities is to make it easier for them to get the same connectivity that their fellow Americans in other parts of the country already enjoy. We will have a chance to do just that on March 22 when the FCC votes on updating, modernizing, and streamlining our wireless broadband infrastructure rules.

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