How the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee Could Shape Cities’ Digital Future

Last week in Washington, DC, the thirty members of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee gathered at the Federal Communications Commission to develop and agree to debate new model state and local laws for broadband deployment.

The group comprised one elected official and five total representatives of state or local governments — along with a wide range of members representing telecommunications companies, academic institutions known for their opposition to municipal broadband investment, and stakeholders representing the National Grange and LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute.

Together, they represented the committee charged with writing state and local laws on broadband deployment. But with just a handful of local government officials onboard, the ramifications for cities could be serious.

Established by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in 2017, the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, or BDAC, was created to “make recommendations to the Commission on how to accelerate the deployment of high-speed Internet access, or “broadband,” by reducing and/or removing regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment.” This charge explicitly included the creation of state and local model codes for broadband deployment.

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In response, NLC collaborated with other local government groups to submit the names of 26 elected and appointed local officials who could offer the needed expertise to expand broadband availability while empowering local authorities. When the membership of the group was announced, however, only one representative of local government was included — Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose, California.

Additionally, the group began its work with the assumption that state and local governments presented a barrier to broadband deployment, not an asset, with the establishment of a “Removing State and Local Regulatory Barriers Working Group.” That group lacked any local representation, as did the group tasked with drafting a state model code.

NLC, along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties, raised substantial opposition over the coming months, calling on the FCC to address this blatant inequity in the BDAC’s composition. This advocacy eventually caught the attention of members of Congress, who joined our call to fix the BDAC.

The group’s membership has also been plagued with controversy. The originally-appointed chair of the BDAC, was arrested for wire fraud in April 2018, triggering further concern from Congress.

Finally, months of delay, the FCC eventually added two additional local officials — Councilmember Andy Huckaba of Lenexa, Kansas, and Larry Hanson, Executive Director of the Georgia Municipal Association.

But by then the damage had already been done. In January 2018, Mayor Liccardo publicly resigned from the BDAC in protest. Over the past months, a model state code had been drafted that would effectively eliminate municipal broadband, establish state franchising, and harshly limit local authority over wireless infrastructure.

Local representatives had spent hundreds of hours of work on documents for the BDAC, only to repeatedly be outnumbered and outgunned by industry participants to ensure that the final products stripped local authority. Meanwhile, as Mayor Liccardo noted in his resignation letter, the BDAC was doing nothing to address the digital divide for rural and low-income Americans.

The remaining local officials have stayed in the BDAC, trying to mitigate the harms threatened by industry-authored model state and local laws. NLC was successfully added to the BDAC, represented by David Young, Fiber and Rights of Way Manager for the City of Lincoln, Nebraska. Amid contentious debate, local BDAC representatives were able to make some positive changes during the BDAC meeting this week. In particular, local representatives successfully advocated for the removal of certain unfunded mandates and a state franchising structure in the state model code.

However, we remain concerned about the composition and processes of the BDAC. The current membership of the BDAC — which, as of publication, was not publicly available anywhere on FCC’s website — continues to be dominated by industry interests. After months of research into the rates and fees actually charged by cities for wireless infrastructure siting, the FCC has prevented release of the data and reduced it to a footnote on page 3 of a working group report. During contentious debates, the BDAC chair, Elizabeth Bowles, the President of Aristotle, called for a re-vote on several items — something that would never be allowed during a city council meeting by Robert’s Rules of Order.

If this is the approach that the FCC continues to take on broadband deployment issues, particularly on anticipated small cell wireless infrastructure deployment regulations, NLC fears that community control of infrastructure will continue to be sacrificed in the name of reducing private industry overhead and boosting profits, with no guaranteed return for consumers.

During the most recent public meeting of the BDAC, Chairman Pai told participants that he intended to task the group with additional work focusing on network resilience and recovery after disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. NLC will work in the coming months to ensure that these new efforts are focused on enabling local recovery from disasters, not using emergencies as leverage to override local planning and local concerns.

Angelina_ready.jpgAbout the Author: Angelina Panettieri is the Principal Associate for Technology and Communication at the National League of Cities. Follower her on twitter at @AngelinainDC.