How Broadband Infrastructure Gets Built
A look at logistical, legal, and other requirements that govern deployment of internet equipment
Each day in the U.S., Americans access billions of webpages, stream millions of videos, and participate in thousands of hours of virtual meetings over broadband networks. All of this relies on the physical infrastructure of the internet—cables, wires, servers, routers, network switches, pipes, poles, wireless towers, and more. And building, connecting, and maintaining that infrastructure involves a complex set of activities, such as securing permits and easements, attaching wires and other equipment to poles, and siting wireless facilities.
For local and state policymakers, ensuring that communities have the infrastructure they need to support all those webpages, videos, and meetings means understanding those requirements and navigating a range of legal and logistical challenges.
Permits and easements
To build broadband networks, internet service providers (ISPs) must install infrastructure on public and private land, and to do that, they must obtain permits and easements.
- Permits provide access to the public rights of way, such as streets, sidewalks, trails, or highways, and allow ISPs to place infrastructure within and to access the right of way for purposes of construction or maintenance. Permitting entities include local governments, state departments of transportation, and federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
- Easements are acquired from private property owners and grant an ISP the right to use and access the property for a specified purpose. Because easements are specific to a stated use and because negotiating them can add time and cost to a project, many states have adopted policies to streamline the process, particularly by expressly allowing electric cooperatives to use existing electric easements for broadband infrastructure, eliminating the need to negotiate new easements.
Aerial and underground infrastructure
Fiber and other wired infrastructure are either placed on poles owned by telephone and electric companies (aerial installation) or buried underground.
- Aerial installations involve a preparatory process known as “make-ready” work, in which the pole owner and the ISP that will be attaching its equipment to the poles survey the condition of poles and repair or replace them where necessary. Then, the entities—such as cable providers, electric utilities, and telephone companies—that own the attachments already on the pole, which may include electric and telecommunications lines, transformers, and other electronics, relocate their equipment to make space for the ISP’s attachments. Because each entity must come separately to the site to relocate their attachments, this process often leads to delays and disruptions in public rights of way.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has attempted to address this issue in the 27 states where it regulates pole attachments by implementing a “one touch” make-ready (OTMR) policy, which allows the ISP to hire an approved contractor to relocate all existing attachments. Several of the remaining 23 states, including Vermont and West Virginia, have adopted their own OTMR policies.
- Underground installations of fiber lines and other cables that support broadband run through conduit (plastic tubing that protects the cables from damage), and an ISP installing underground lines may include excess fiber or conduit in anticipation of future needs. Fiber in conduit may be “dark,” meaning that it is installed but not yet connected to the other equipment necessary to provide internet service, or “lit”—that is, already being used to transport data. Several states have implemented various policies related to installation of excess conduit during roadwork projects to streamline later fiber deployment and limit disruptions. For example, Iowa’s “dig once” policy requires that state and local agencies coordinate with ISPs to install conduit during road construction, and Arizona and Nevada have directed their departments of transportation to install conduit as part of major roadway projects. Arizona also has made excess conduit a central component of its plan to use federal broadband funds provided under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Towers and antennas are used for fixed and mobile wireless service, and the sites where these facilities are placed fall into two categories:
- Macrocell sites provide coverage to large geographic areas and are often located on wireless towers, though they may be co-located on other structures such as water towers. To operate effectively, wireless infrastructure requires “line of sight” between towers to allow the signal to move from tower to tower unobstructed.
- Microcell sites, in contrast, provide coverage over a small area and are needed to deploy 5G mobile wireless and Wi-Fi service.
Both types of sites are usually subject to local zoning requirements, which address considerations of location, safety, and aesthetics. These zoning regulations may limit tower height or require that towers be camouflaged, for example as artificial trees, and may also promote co-location—the practice of placing new wireless equipment on existing towers or other existing structures such as water towers. However, in an effort to reduce the costs of deploying wireless service, many states, including Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, have passed laws that limit local control over the size, placement, and scale of wireless infrastructure. In addition, the FCC has pre-empted local control over microcell zoning, which has led to several lawsuits and fueled campaigns by the National League of Cities and other groups representing local governments in support of local control.
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