President Biden’s recently passed Infrastructure and Jobs Act will fund a wide array of projects that will improve the lives of Americans across the country.
Given the ways in which COVID-19 has shaped our lives, the most needed of these infrastructure projects may be the $65 billion investment to achieve universal high-speed internet across the country, with the largest chunk going to expand broadband in currently unserved areas in states like Montana.
The reality is, life has changed a lot since the beginning of the pandemic, and regardless of where you live or what you do for a living, broadband access should be viewed as an essential resource. Thanks to leaders like Senator Tester, Congress recognized this and the passage of this monumental law could not have come soon enough.
However, there are still legislative steps that need to be taken to ensure Montanans and Americans feel the benefits. When it comes to broadband deployment, we need to shed light on the fact that outdated regulations for utility pole access are standing in the way of connecting over 14 million rural Americans.
As is the case with essentially all communications infrastructure, broadband expansion will be impossible without access to utility poles. Internet service providers can quickly deploy broadband by attaching their technology to poles, but providers usually don’t own these poles, so they must be granted access to use the poles by the pole owners, who are often local municipalities, electric companies or small utilities and co-ops.
While providers have repeatedly shown a willingness to pay for access, oftentimes disagreements arise and there’s no useful system in place to resolve disagreements quickly. This will delay connecting unserved communities to high-speed internet.
One of the biggest benefits of broadband deployment is through telehealth services, which provide an alternative to travelling sometimes hundreds of miles to see a doctor. This has been especially important during the pandemic and it’s very important in a place like Montana. Lack of broadband is the “Achilles’ heel” of telehealth. Let’s not let obsolete utility pole rules stand in the way.
Policymakers can bring greater transparency to the pole access process by ensuring there are clear permit timelines. We also must make sure that disputes between pole owners and those deploying broadband are heard and resolved as quickly as possible. Unserved Montanans are counting on our leaders to build upon the progress made in the Infrastructure and Jobs Act and eliminate any barriers that will delay broadband deployment. It’s time to fix our pole access rules to close the digital divide.