Broadband Infrastructure Policy and Community Anchor Institutions

The SHLB Coalition developed Connecting Anchor Institutions: A Broadband Action Plan to provide ideas and actionable policy recommendations for government leaders at the federal, state, and local levels to address the broadband needs of anchor institutions. The ten policy papers highlight connectivity gaps and explain why broadband access is vital to communities nationwide. In the coming weeks, the Benton Foundation will be highlighting each of the Action Plan policy papers. The following is an excerpt of the second paper. In November, we'll be looking at Government Funding and Networks. To read the complete Broadband Action Plan, visit

Streamlining access to rights-of-way and effectively managing public land can expedite the deployment of high-capacity broadband to anchor institutions.

Federal, state and local government policies concerning access to rights-of-way, pole attachments, tower siting, and other issues can have a significant impact on the pace of broadband network deployment. The National Broadband Plan, the federal Broadband Opportunity Council report, and numerous state and local broadband plans have found that streamlining these decisions can dramatically lower the cost of broadband investment.

Governments can also lower the cost of broadband deployment by installing empty conduit for fiber optic lines as part of every construction project, including roads, bridges, and sewers. The cost of running a strand of fiber through an empty conduit is 3-4 times less expensive than digging new trenches or attaching fiber to utility poles. Empty conduit can be leased to service providers directly, or the community can use that conduit itself to self-provide fiber and broadband services to community anchor institutions (CAIs) and other governmental purposes.

Streamlining rights-of-way policies and installing empty conduit typically do not require additional funding, but taking these steps does require a concerted effort to change existing bureaucratic practices, ensure equitable access to all broadband competitors, and protect the public interest. Forward-thinking government broadband infrastructure policies improve access to, and use of, existing infrastructure and foster further infrastructure deployment.

Proactive leaders can use the following policy levers to meet the broadband needs of community anchor institutions, promoting infrastructure investments with sufficient scale, breadth, reach, and capacity to serve the economic and social needs of the entire community.

I. Dig Once, Rights-of-Way and Conduit Policies

The National Broadband Plan recommended that Congress consider enacting dig once legislation applying to all future federally-funded projects along rights-of-way (including sewers, power transmission facilities, rail, pipelines, bridges, tunnels, and roads).4 Several bills in Congress have been introduced since 2010 that would establish dig once policies for federal transportation projects and apply standard fees for rights-of-way leases. Some of the ideas under consideration are to:

  • Make it the policy of the United States to encourage the deployment of communications facilities.
  • Convey a sense of Congress that federal agencies should endeavor to provide for the inclusion of broadband conduits in federally-funded highway construction projects and to do so in a manner that does not negatively impact highway safety or operations and limits burdens on state departments of transportation.
  • Establish a common permit application form and fee structure for communications facilities.
  • Require highway departments and projects to 1) coordinate with state telecommunications and broadband plans and 2) implement dig once coordination.
  • Mandate the installation of broadband conduit—plastic pipes that house fiber-optic communications cable—during the construction of any road receiving federal funding if there is a demonstrated need for broadband in the area within the next 15 years.

In 2012, Executive Order 13616 required the 14 federal agencies that control property to identify and consider
adopting dig once “best practices.”(1)

Many cities across the country are adopting conduit installation requirements. The city code in Mt. Vernon, WA, requires the installation of conduit as part of the development of all buildings, homes, subdivisions, streets, and utilities. Mt. Vernon has used this city-owned network of empty conduit to help build an open access telecommunications network that supports community anchor institution connectivity.6 Brentwood, CA, has a similar policy, requiring developers to install two conduits when doing work in public rights-of-way. One conduit is assigned for city network use. The second is leased to a private provider that will offer Gigabit service to consumers and businesses.(2)

II. Access to Existing Poles and Ducts

In addition to digging trenches, another way to build broadband networks is by attaching wires and facilities to existing utility poles. There are an estimated 130-180 million utility poles in the U.S. – more than one pole for every household. These poles are generally owned by electric utilities, municipalities, railroads, and traditional telephone companies.

In rural areas, where a provider may need to attach to hundreds of poles to reach a community, even small changes in the cost of attaching to these poles can have a significant impact on broadband deployment. The National Broadband Plan estimated that, in rural areas, pole attachments alone can cost a broadband provider $4.54 to $12.96 per month per subscriber—a significant part of the cost of monthly broadband service.

Governments that own and control these poles and ducts can use them to attract broadband investment. Governments also regulate the rates, terms, and conditions of access to privately-owned poles, which are frequently built on public rights-of-way. Section 224 of the Communications Act gives the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the power to regulate the rates, terms, and conditions of poles that are owned by private companies. Section 224 also allows states to establish their own pricing rules for privately-owned poles. To date, 19 states and the District of Columbia have established pole attachment policies.

III. Asset Inventories and Databases

Governments are, by far, the largest owners of property in the nation. Every level of government has the ability to directly affect the cost, nature, and quality of a network build simply by making it easier for private firms to identify and lease space on public buildings, signs, water towers, and other locations. In 2015, the Broadband Opportunity Council recommended that the Federal Government create an “open data inventory of infrastructure assets” for broadband.

Local government can also provide information directly to broadband providers in a way that essentially “markets” those locations to providers. For example, for no upfront cost, Columbus, OH, is working with Connected Nation Exchange(3) to inventory, catalog, and map all civic infrastructure and locations to market to service providers interested in expanding their networks.

IV. Wireless Tower Siting Policies

According to the FCC, the process of deploying wireless towers can be expensive, cumbersome, and time-consuming. In addition to identifying and purchasing or leasing the right location, a provider usually must obtain siting approval from the local municipality and comply with environmental review. The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 streamlined this process, requiring state and local governments to approve certain wireless broadband facilities’ siting requests and to set timelines for local review of applications.

  1. Executive Order No. 13616, Accelerating Broadband Infrastructure Deployment (June 14, 2014), Broadband Deployment on Federal Property Working Group, Implementing Executive Order 13616: Progress on Accelerating Broadband Infrastructure Deployment (Aug. 2013), at 8-10
  2. Nate Gartrell, “Sonic partners with Brentwood to bring high-speed Internet to Town,” San Jose Mercury News (May 20, 2015),; see also Brentwood (CA) Municipal Code, Section 16,120.120(C)
  3. Connected Nation Exchange (CNX) is a spin-off of Connected Nation and aims to serve as a trusted intermediary between cities who manage public assets and the wireless carriers who seek access to properties that can help densify their networks.

About the author
Tom Koutsky served as Chief Policy Counsel for Connected Nation, where he provided vision and leadership for Connected Nation’s broadband research and policy initiatives. Tom joined Connected Nation from the Federal Communications Commission where he served as a Senior Advisor to the team that wrote the first U.S. National Broadband Plan. Tom focused on policy recommendations related to network infrastructure, the law and economics of middle-mile connectivity, wholesale competition rules, and universal service and access charge reform.