washington–US Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch (both R-Idaho) joined Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) in a letter to the Secretaries of the US Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce about the need to expand high-speed internet access in rural communities.
Internet service providers are required to obtain permits from the federal government when installing telecommunications infrastructure on federal lands or for projects using federal funding. Currently, they face extensive delays in the permitting process. In their letter, the senators urge the Biden Administration to streamline the permitting process, close the digital divide and expand high-speed internet in rural areas across the country.
“According to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) most recent Broadband Deployment report, approximately 14.5 million Americans in rural areas lack access to basic broadband service.,” wrote the senators. “Many of our communities rely on rights-of-way and utility corridors across federal lands for transportation and essential utilities.”
“It’s important that we close the digital divide by expanding access to high-speed internet—a top priority for our rural areas—and we can’t accomplish that without improving the permitting process.,” the senators continued. “We encourage you to build on recent actions taken by Congress and various federal agencies to simplify permitting on federal land.”
Additional signatories of the letter include US Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming), John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado), Mark Kelly . (D-Arizona), Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), Patty Murray (D-Washington), Mike Braun (R-Indiana), Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Catherine Cortez -Mast (D-Nevada), Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota).
The full text of the letter can be found below.
Dear Secretary Haaland, Secretary Vilsack, and Secretary Raimondo,
We write today about the extensive delays that Internet service providers experience when obtaining permit approvals. As you know, these permits are required when installing telecommunications infrastructure on federal lands or for projects seeking federal funding through a host of programs dedicated to broadband deployment. It’s important that we close the digital divide by expanding access to high-speed internet—a top priority for our rural areas—and we can’t accomplish that without improving the permitting process.
According to the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent Broadband Deployment report, about 14.5 million Americans in rural areas lack access to basic broadband service. However, due to mapping issues, this number may be significantly higher. Additionally, as reported by the Congressional Research Service, the federal government owns 45.9% of the land across 11 western states, and approximately 28% nationwide. Many of our communities rely on rights-of-way and utility corridors across federal lands for transportation and essential utilities. In addition, duplicative permitting processes delay permit approvals for broadband infrastructure, dramatically slowing efforts to close the digital divide, especially on federal lands.
Over the years, presidential administrations have identified opportunities to streamline this permitting process. Most recently, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)—the agency primarily responsible for advising the President on telecommunications matters—required states and eligible entities to “accelerate[e] allowing timelines and giving up[e] fees where applicable, where doing so does not undermine other critical policy goals.” Federal agencies must similarly accelerate permitting timelines and waive fees in compliance with existing environmental protection and historic preservation laws.
The current process has a significant impact on our communities. For example, one Wyoming internet provider regularly waits between 12 and 36 months for a permit to be approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and in New Mexico, permitting for broadband projects on BLM or National Forest Service land can take anywhere between 16 and 48 months. In Utah, one provider waited nearly three years for approval from the US Forest Service to fix a fiber optic line on federal land. The Forest Service often tells a Colorado provider that they don’t have the resources to process an application and will instead look at it the following year. Prolonged delays jeopardize broadband projects by driving up costs and can even cause a provider to default on its deadline that accompanies federal funding. This process should not take years.
Additionally, rural broadband providers reported significant delays between the notice of award and receipt of the funds needed to deploy the proposed broadband networks. While the delays appear to occur at many steps during the process, those presented by environmental and historic preservation reviews significantly contribute to the long wait times leading to the disbursement of funds to an awardee. We encourage you to expedite permit timelines and waive fees in compliance with existing environmental protection and historic preservation laws.
The burden of these delays falls heavily on small businesses and underserved families in our most rural areas. Access to high-speed internet is crucial for economic development. The internet is also vital to educating our children as well as connecting Americans with their health care providers through telehealth services. In the Western United States, first responders are often called to areas on remote federal lands with little to no access to communications networks. A lack of strong communication skills for our first responders puts the public at risk, and these continued delays make the problem worse.
We encourage you to build on recent actions taken by Congress and various federal agencies to simplify permitting on federal land. We are encouraged by the recent agreement to streamline permitting for high-speed internet projects on Tribal lands as well as BLM’s recent proposed rulemaking announcement. To build on this progress, we are requesting the following information regarding the permit approval process:
- What are your plans to modernize the environmental review and permitting process to speed up the approval of applications for broadband projects on federal land?
- Do your respective agencies have sufficient staff and resources to meet current statutory and regulatory requirements to process permit applications and meet the expected increase in permit applications for broadband projects in a timely manner?
- Do your respective agencies require additional appropriations or new statutory authority to expedite permit approval?
- What is the escalation process for resolving potential permission bottlenecks and conflicts?
- 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 coordination between agencies to avoid potential bottlenecks, and to identify and share best practices. How do you leverage this existing program to address conflicts, improve communication, and accelerate information sharing between agencies?
- What actions is the Council and the respective agencies taking to reduce permit times to close the digital divide as quickly as possible?
- In August, NTIA and BIA announced an agreement to coordinate responsibilities in ensuring compliance with environmental, historic preservation, and cultural resource requirements related to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. Is there a similar agreement between NTIA, FCC, and the federal land management agencies under USDA and DOI?
- How many major broadband infrastructure projects are awaiting permit approvals on federal lands?
- What is the average time for agencies in your department to approve such permits?
- What is the average interval between USDA ReConnect award announcement and the final disbursement of funds to the applicant?
- What is the average interval between the announcement of the NTIA Tribal Broadband Connectivity program and the final disbursement of funds to the applicant?
- How long do you wait between an NTIA Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment award and final disbursement of funds to grantees?
Thank you for your consideration on this matter. We look forward to your response.