A new report states that America could save billions of dollars on fiber broadband deployment with a fairly simple law.
Deploying fiber broadband across the country the size of the United States is hugely expensive. A large portion of these costs come from digging up public streets to lay fiber, a process that’s both time consuming and chaotic, especially when done incorrectly. Fiber itself, however, is cheap. It's digging up the ground that's expensive.
As a result, telecom experts have long pushed for a “dig once” law that would mandate the installation of fiber conduit during roadway construction and upgrades. These conduits would make running fiber along major thoroughfares much easier, saving taxpayers a fortune over the longer haul. The government claims 90 percent of deployment costs come from burying fiber.
A new study by BroadbandNow, a consumer-focused company that tracks US broadband availability, states that passing “dig once” legislation could have saved the United States $126 billion in broadband deployment costs.
“Goldman Sachs has estimated that it could cost upwards of $140 billion to build high-speed service out to the entire country,” the firm said. “If dig once had been implemented nationally, it could’ve provided up to $126 billion in savings, bringing the estimated total to a far more palatable $14 billion.”
Dig once legislation has been routinely proposed since 1996 by a rotating crop of lawmakers, but the legislation rarely goes anywhere. For example, California Rep. Anna Eshoo and West Virginia Rep. David McKinley introduced bipartisan dig once legislation last year, though it failed to gain traction in Congress.
Three other efforts by Eshoo (2009, 2011, and 2015) were similarly unsuccessful.
Matt Wood, General Counsel of consumer group Free Press, told Motherboard in an email exchange that there’s a number of reasons why such laws don’t gain traction. The biggest being that incumbent ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast aren’t keen on anything that would make it easier for competitors to challenge their regional broadband monopolies.
But Wood also stated it’s not always that simple.
“Sometimes, different types of ISPs can have different interests, and people get caught in the middle of the food fight,” Wood said. “So telephone companies that own some conduits—and really, electric companies, which these days own far more poles and conduits than communications providers do in lots of areas—may have lobbied against these bills and prevented their passage even when other large ISPs would benefit from them and faithfully backed them.”
In 2018, a variation of Eshoo’s dig once legislation was initially included in an act reauthorizing the FCC, but wound up being shelved for undisclosed reasons at the last minute, punting any action to the states without requiring hard action. And while 11 states and 18 cities currently do have dig once policies in place, broader adoption of such rules has been slow going.
The report notes that identifying why dig once bills routinely die prematurely is difficult given the closed door legislative process. But the report suggested that lobbying by telecom incumbents and short-sighted state leaders are both to blame.
“Transportation agencies and public works departments have been known to oppose dig once on the principle that it creates even more operational overhead, despite the long-term benefits far outweighing the short-term costs,” the report said.
Wood called a federal dig once law a “no brainer” as it would help clarify authority conflicts across varying levels of government.
"Of course there are also federalism questions when it comes to interactions between federal law, state rights-of-way, city rights-of-way, and private owners too, so the whole thing is messier than it needs to be,” Wood said. “And that's why a federal bill would be so welcome."
This week Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren unveiled a rural broadband plan that would make dig once policies the centerpiece of future US broadband efforts.
“We will make sure that all new buildings are fiber-ready so that any network can deliver service there, and we will also enact ‘dig once’ policies to require that conduit is laid anytime the ground is opened for a public infrastructure project,” Warren said.
Wood noted that the dig once issue remains only a small part of the US broadband problem. The United States has thrown billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies at big telecom, but because the campaign-cash slathered government often fails to properly track how this money is spent, many promised fiber networks only wind up being half deployed.
Telecom giants also routinely promise to speed up fiber deployment if they get tax breaks or regulatory favors (like killing net neutrality), then fail to deliver. Ultimately the only thing that drives broadband deployment is competition. But when the telecom lobby all but controls state and federal governments, such policies are often hard to come by, experts say.
So while dig once laws would go a long way in speeding up long overdue US fiber deployment, it’s just one part of a much bigger problem. Ultimately, big telecom’s lobbying stranglehold over both state and federal government remains the biggest obstacle to better broadband.