Everyone agrees that closing the digital divide and giving more people access to the internet. But that lofty goal may be fueling a proposed bill that could strip local and state authorities of the power to say how those networks will be built in their cities.
House of Representative bill H.R. 3557, also known as the American Broadband Deployment Act of 2023, is proposing to further cement policies put into place by the Trump-era Federal Communications Commission that give internet service providers more authority over how and where they deploy cell towers, fiber optic lines and other network infrastructure in local communities. The bill, which came out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in May but is being reviewed by two other House committees, was highlighted by government policy news site TechDirt last week.
The notion of cutting through red tape to speed up the process of building networks sounds like a good idea, but the bill could instead diminish the power of local and state oversight, devastating their ability to ensure coverage is built out to serve everyone equally. ISPs prioritizing more profitable or densely populated areas is a core reason why there’s such wild disparity in service and network quality.
“That’s how we got to digital redlining in the first place,” Angelina Panettieri, a policy expert for the National League of Cities, a non-profit that advocates for city rights, said in an interview on Wednesday.
It could also mean that cities may have little say on whether a cell tower or network installation project shows up on your sidewalk. That aspect is why residents and cities are starting to speak out against the bill.
“People really get invested in what happens on their sidewalks,” Panettieri said.
Ensuring Equality in Coverage
Traditionally, when a cable company wanted to enter a new town, it would have to enter into a “franchise agreement” with the community, which set up obligations for where and how quickly service would be rolled out. While cable and telecom companies have criticized the rules for being too onerous or demanding, they often serve as a safeguard against companies cherry-picking where they want to build.
“In a purely market-driven system of telecom infrastructure equipment, you’ll never achieve your equity goal,” Panettieri said. “It’s always more profitable to build in the densest and wealthiest areas. Cities are the only ones looking out for their residents.”
Sometimes, companies ignore or postpone work on areas where they’re obligated to build. For instance, Verizon settled a lawsuit with New York City in 2020 because it had failed to provide FiOS internet in certain areas, including 11 City House Authority locations.
While the proposed bill doesn’t eliminate franchising, Panettieri said it significantly reduces its power. That’s on top of the fact that companies have been able to get around the franchising rules by focusing entirely on internet service, since franchising is tied to cable TV service.
The bill introduces another element that Panettieri said even the FCC had backed off on: the shot clock. This is a concept in which a city or state has a certain amount of time to review a permit request from an ISP or wireless provider. If the time expires without review, it’s automatically approved.
“It’s a blunt tool that we have tried really hard to keep away,” she said.
The cable and telecom companies argue the shot clock is invaluable in incentivizing quick reviews and moving the process forward. But Panettieri said it puts a tremendous amount of strain on resource-strapped local officials.
Whether the bill is up for a broader floor vote in the House is unclear. It would also need to be reconciled with a counterpart bill from the senate, which doesn’t exist yet.
It advanced out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in May along partisan lines, with the Democrats voting against it and offering amendments to remove some of the more aggressive policies.
Panettieri noted that no local or state government official was invited to testify during an initial hearing to discuss broadband permitting. Since then, she has been rallying city officials across the country to speak to their representatives.
While it’s unclear if H.R. 3557 may pass on its own, Panettieri said that it could be added as an amendment to H.R. 3565, a related bill that has more bipartisan support. H.R. 3565 reauthorizes the FCC to auction off spectrum for wireless service. She warned that linking the two bills “could be catastrophic.”
“It overlooks a critical role that cities have for advocating for its residents,” Panettieri said.