US mayors urge Congress to ditch red-tape-slaying broadband expansion bill

What's the matter, you want China to win, huh?

It's been slow going expanding America's high-speed internet coverage – and city-level opposition to one proposed national law to streamline broadband roll-outs may stall things further. 

The US Conference of Mayors, which speaks for the administrations of more than 1,400 cities with a population of at least 30,000 people, adopted a resolution over the weekend at its annual meeting that voiced an objection to HR 3557, a draft law known as the American Broadband Deployment Act of 2023. 

The bill, which was introduced by House Rep Earl Carter (R-GA) last May and is awaiting further consideration by Congress, is ostensibly designed to make it easier for telcos to build infrastructure and run additional cables on state and locally managed land, ideally allowing fast broadband connectivity to reach more and more folks.

Rep Carter went as far as saying his proposals will ensure "more Americans have access to internet and the United States can maintain its competitive edge against China."

Meanwhile, the mayors say HR 3557 strips local governments of authority to oppose bad projects. What raises particular ire are provisions in the draft law that would provide a very short window for opposition. What we have here, basically, is a classic example of one side trying to strip away what is perceived to be bureaucracy and red tape, and the other side insisting that checks and balances are sorely needed.

According to the conference, under the proposed law city officials will have 60 days to assess and reject or approve a request by a telco to site broadband infrastructure at a particular location – or it will be automatically granted. That window is just a quarter of the time the federal government gives itself for similar decisions regarding its own property, we're told.

Even if officials oppose a request in time, HR 3557 still makes it nearly impossible to stop a project, the statement claimed. "Virtually any local government decision not to allow the installation of a proposed wireless facility at a provider's request is a 'prohibition' preempted by federal law," the conference resolution argued, meaning local governments would end up getting overruled anyway.

Officials would also have to provide written explanation for their denial the same day the decision was made – "a virtually impossible task because such written decisions typically require the examination and analysis of evidence presented to local council," the resolution explained.

Conference members are also upset that, along with depriving them of appropriate channels to oppose projects and various other concerns, HR 3557 "would also eliminate cable franchise renewals, thereby restricting the ability of state or local franchising authorities to enforce franchise obligations such as public, educational, and government channel capacity and facilities, customer service requirements, and system build-out requirements."

Less oversight, in other words, of powerful, profit-driven telcos.

The group is unhappy with how quickly the House moved HR 3557 through the committee stage last year - complaints that are borne out by a look at the bill's history. The 100-page piece of legislation went from being introduced on May 22 last year to marked up and advanced to the report stage by the House Energy and Commerce committee in just two days.

"Only a single hearing was held on the eventual contents" of the bill, the resolution alleges, and testimony in that hearing "came exclusively from witnesses supportive of federal preemption, with not a single state or local government representative invited to testify," the group said.

Back on May 24, 2023, Energy and Commerce committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) was enthusiastic about the proposed law, saying: "High-speed broadband is a vital part of our economy, yet many Americans still do not have access to these important services.

"In order to ensure access, especially in rural areas, we need to cut red tape and streamline the burdensome permitting processes at the federal, state, and local level.

"I applaud these efforts, including Rep Carter's leadership, to help close the digital divide and lift permitting burdens so we deploy broadband faster, with less government waste, and more efficiently."

BEAD still my beating heart

The Biden administration allocated $42.5 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Act funds for the Broadband Equity Access Deployment (BEAD) program a year ago to boost the nation's internet connectivity for all, and it's been a slow process.

We've been down this road before - giving broadband providers millions in exchange for better internet - and it ended up amounting to nothing but higher bills. Whether HR 3557 would make BEAD less prone to failure isn't a sure thing, but the draft law may never get the chance to prove itself.

Since October 2, following a report by the House Energy and Commerce, the proposed legislation has been sat awaiting further discussion and a vote by the House. Two additional House committees (Transportation and Natural Resources) discharged the bill without comment, effectively giving it a nod of approval. Crucially, there doesn't appear to be any corresponding Senate proposals, needed to make the law bill viable, so the mayors may get their wish anyway.

A spokesperson for Rep Carter, sponsor of HR 3557, told us the Congressman hasn't given up and continues to push for floor action.

"The American Broadband Deployment Act will help ensure that all Americans, particularly in rural areas, have access to reliable internet," Rep Carter told The Register in a statement. "We are excited to pass this bill and codify these reforms, some of which have been in place for years."

With the legislation stuck since October, and no one we spoke with able to say if it's ever going to get another airing, and with mayors voicing their resistance to the proposals – which congressfolk may heed or ignore – it's anyone's guess whether HR 3557 will get broadband bucks moving.

In the meantime, the more than 20 percent of Americans living in rural and tribal areas without reliable broadband will just have to wait and hope we don't end up repeating the broadband failures of the early 2000s. ®

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