Years in the making, a proposal to mandate the installation of fiber conduits during federally funded highway projects might be gaining some new momentum.
If the US adopts a “dig once” policy, construction workers would install conduits just about any time they build new roads and sidewalks or upgrade existing ones. These conduits are plastic pipes that can house fiber cables. The conduits might be empty when installed, but their presence makes it a lot cheaper and easier to install fiber later, after the road construction is finished.
The idea is an old one. US Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) has been proposing dig once legislation since 2009, and it has widespread support from broadband-focused consumer advocacy groups. It has never made it all the way through Congress, but it has bipartisan backing from lawmakers who often disagree on the most controversial broadband policy questions, such as net neutrality and municipal broadband. It even got a boost from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who has frequently clashed with Democrats and consumer advocacy groups over broadband—her “Internet Freedom Act” would wipe out the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, and she supports state laws that restrict growth of municipal broadband.
Blackburn, chair of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, put Eshoo’s dig once legislation on the agenda for a hearing she held yesterday on broadband deployment and infrastructure. Blackburn’s opening statement said that dig once is among the policies she’s considering to “facilitate the deployment of communications infrastructure.” But her statement did not specifically endorse Eshoo’s dig once proposal, which was presented only as a discussion draft with no vote scheduled. The subcommittee also considered a discussion draft that would “creat[e] an inventory of federal assets that can be used to attach or install broadband infrastructure.”
Democrats and Republicans agree—but will they vote?
Dig once legislation received specific support from Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who said that he is “glad to see Ms. Eshoo’s ‘Dig Once’ bill has made a return this Congress. I think that this is smart policy and will help spur broadband deployment across the country.” Like Blackburn, Walden is an opponent of the FCC’s current net neutrality rules and a supporter of state laws that limit municipal broadband.
At the FCC, dig once has support from Democrats and Republicans. Former Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, endorsed the policy, and so has the current chairman, Republican Ajit Pai. Pai said last year that “government officials should adopt ‘dig once’ policies so that broadband conduit is deployed as part of every road and highway construction project.”
We asked Blackburn’s office if she supports the dig once legislation and whether she plans to schedule a vote on it, and we’ll provide an update if we get one. Specifically, the dig once bill requires states to evaluate the need for broadband conduit any time they complete a highway construction project that gets federal funding. Conduit must be installed if the evaluation, done in consultation with local and national telecom providers and equipment makers, “reveals an anticipated need in the next 15 years for broadband conduit.” Projects should include enough conduits “to accommodate multiple broadband providers,” the bill says.
Dig once doesn’t have to be just for state and federal projects, as cities such as Boston and San Francisco already require it locally.
Big benefit for a “tiny cost”
TechFreedom, a libertarian think tank that has often criticized Democratic telecommunications policies, is also on board with dig once.
“Failure to implement Dig Once means more construction, more disruption, and much higher costs for private providers—who may simply decide not to deploy in an area where the economics don’t work,” TechFreedom and other groups wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “The tiny cost of installing conduit (about 1 percent in added costs) pales in comparison to the taxpayer burden of unnecessary digs, traffic congestion, and the opportunity cost of not having high-speed networks that both help support public services and grow the economy.”
Last year, the dig once proposal was dropped from a larger broadband bill. At the time, community broadband consultant Stephen Blum offered some speculation on why the legislation stalled.
“Dig once requirements are often opposed by deep pocketed incumbent telephone and cable companies, who build their own infrastructure and would prefer that smaller competitors not have access to cheap and freely available conduit,” he wrote. “Transportation agencies and public works people will also tend to oppose dig once rules on occasion, because it adds costs and extra hassles to road projects that are already expensive and complicated.”
But if the Republican-led Congress decides to implement dig once legislation, it can point to public support from some ISPs and broadband industry lobbyists. CTIA, which represents the nation’s largest mobile carriers including AT&T and Verizon Wireless, supported dig once in a letter yesterday, pointing to government data that suggests the policy “can cut broadband costs by up to 90 percent.” Dig once also got support from CenturyLink, which said conduit deployment requirements “could be especially helpful where fiber upgrades must cross bottleneck facilities, such as bridges or tunnels, where only one practical route is available.”
Competitive Carriers Association CEO Steven Berry, who represents nearly 100 smaller wireless carriers, told lawmakers yesterday that it’s time to “establish ‘dig once’ policies, once and for all.”