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(The Center Square) – Although the federal government will put tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into broadband infrastructure growth in the coming years, the regulatory scheme threatens to harm attempts to close the digital divide.

Telecom industry leaders recently expressed those concerns during a hearing of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee where they urged Congress to streamline broadband permitting so that providers can work quickly to expand high-speed internet infrastructure.

Lawmakers are considering more than 30 possible drafts that would aid the permitting process. These reforms include addressing such issues as “shot clocks” for acting on permits, making it easier to deploy on federal lands and would exempt environmental and historic preservation reviews on damaged or destroyed communications facilities in need of rebuilding.

Legislation would also cap fees that governments can charge for review applications or granting access to rights-of-way while also preserving state and local zoning authority.

Bob Latta, R-Ohio, chairman of the subcommittee, said in opening remarks that reforms in the permitting processes are necessary.

“I firmly believe that the infrastructure bill was a missed opportunity to enact meaningful permitting reform that would have broken down barriers to deployment and stretched federal funding,” he said. “Lengthy application reviews and excessive fees for deployment will only delay connectivity and increase costs, leaving behind those American families who lack reliable internet access.”

Latta added that he appreciated the work of the Federal Communications Commission to streamline state and local permitting processes.

“We need to codify and build on these reforms,” he said. “Without changes to the permitting process and meaningful oversight, all of this money set aside for broadband could be wasted. We cannot let that happen.”

Lawmakers and industry leaders pointed to the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, by far the biggest of the federal funding efforts, which will provide $42.5 billion in taxpayer money for broadband growth.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., noted that BEAD money will begin rolling out as soon as the end of this year so Congress needs to expeditiously pass substantive permitting reform.

“We need to lift these regulatory burdens, cut the red tape, and roll out the red carpet,” she said.

Michael Romano, executive vice president of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, said that the rollout of BEAD projects could “exacerbate existing backlogs” by creating a larger demand for permit approvals. This could particularly harm smaller broadband providers that can less afford to deal with lengthy delays in the process, he noted.

Michael Saperstein, chief strategy officer for the Wireless Infrastructure Association, said the industry “simply seek[s] a predictable application process, proportionate to the project, that will be decided in a timely manner.”

Former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, president of MPORielly Consulting, said during the hearing that officials in the Biden administration have expressed support for permitting reforms. It’s yet unclear, however, if Democrats will be on board with some of the proposed reforms, particularly in terms of environmental reviews.

Given the vast amount of taxpayer money being used for broadband infrastructure growth in the coming years, it’s encouraging to see congressional efforts toward reforming a permitting process. Hopefully, the denizens of Capitol Hill successfully pass legislation this year that will speed up efforts to close the digital divide.

Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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