Earlier this week, President Trump issued a presidential executive order establishing “discipline and accountability” in the environmental review of infrastructure projects, including broadband. The executive order is narrowly focused on the environmental and permitting process for infrastructure projects, and creates a framework that seeks to ensure that the federal environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure projects is “coordinated, predictable, and transparent.” Notably, however, the Administration defines infrastructure – such as roads, bridges and highways – to include broadband internet.
Infrastructure Includes Broadband Internet Networks
The President’s executive order expressly defines any “infrastructure project”, such as roads, bridges, railroads, and ports, as including those related to “broadband internet.” As such, the Administration’s order applies equally to infrastructure projects such as broadband. The inclusion of broadband in the executive order is a step in the right direction for favorable broadband infrastructure policies and is consistent with extensive USTelecom advocacy on this issue.
When the President first announced his “America’s Infrastructure First” policy calling for $1 trillion in new investment to improve the nation’s infrastructure, USTelecom said that broadband must be front and center in this important initiative. In early 2017, USTelecom hosted an event, "Broadband First: Investing in America's Infrastructure," where USTelecom president Jonathan Spalter emphasized the need for the new administration and Congress to include broadband in any infrastructure package that might be adopted.
Order Sets Environmental Policies for Infrastructure Deployment
The executive order establishes several broad policies for infrastructure projects subject to environmental reviews. The threshold policy for the federal government is to ensure that communities are safeguarded and the environment remains healthy. However, the order establishes federal policy that federal authorities make informed decisions in a transparent and accountable manner, and that agencies speak with a “coordinated voice when conducting environmental reviews and making authorization decisions.” It also says that the government will “make timely decisions with the goal of completing all federal environmental reviews and authorization decisions for major infrastructure projects within two years.
Ensuring Agency Accountability
The order generally focuses on two broad areas for establishing federal policies related to environmental review of any infrastructure project: agency performance accountability and process enhancements. With respect to agency accountability, the order states that federal agencies should follow transparent and coordinated processes for conducting environmental reviews and making authorization decisions. These processes must include early and open coordination among federal, state, tribal, and local agencies and early engagement with the public. The order states that holding federal agencies accountable for their progress should produce measurably better environmental outcomes with respect to infrastructure development.
The order therefore sets performance priority goals for infrastructure projects such as broadband. For example, within 180 days of the order’s release, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) must establish a Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) goal on “Infrastructure Permitting Modernization” so that federal environmental reviews are timely and predictable. It must also strive to ensure that the time for the federal government's processing of environmental reviews and authorization decisions for new major infrastructure projects is reduced to not more than an average of approximately two years.
Within 180 days of the release of the order, OMB must also issue guidance for establishing a performance accountability system to facilitate achievement of the CAP goal. This includes the tracking of major infrastructure projects, accountability scoring associated with such projects, and the development of best practices.
Incorporating Process Enhancements
The order also requires federal agencies to follow a more unified environmental review and authorization process. For example, each major infrastructure project must have a lead federal agency, which shall be responsible for navigating the project through the federal environmental review and authorization process, including the identification of a primary federal point of contact at each federal agency.
All federal cooperating and participating agencies shall identify points of contact for each project, cooperate with the lead federal agency point of contact, and respond to all reasonable requests for information from the lead federal agency in a timely manner. Federal agencies must also develop and follow a permitting timetable, which shall be reviewed and updated at least quarterly by the lead federal agency.
As the Administration moves forward with its infrastructure policies, USTelecom will continue to advocate for policies that ensure that broadband remains at the center of these efforts.