Broadband Availability Broadband availability refers either to the ratio of the population with access to broadband at the speed that data is transmitted or to bandwidth capacity, measured in bits per second. Also broadband deployment, it measures the basic “supply” level of broadband or the capacity of the general population to utilize broadband communications. The availability recommendations leverage existing infrastructure and resources to improve broadband availability in North Carolina. Recommendations Recommendation 1: Lower barriers to broadband deployment AV1.1: Lower barriers to access local infrastructure. The League of Municipalities and the Association of County Commissioners, in cooperation with the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office, should create a set of best practices and checklists for their members to ensure consistency, certainty and adherence to a process for the review and approval of permits and other required documents. This should include timelines and deadlines for both municipalities and internet service providers for application review, processing and access. The checklist should include which assets providers consider (e.g., vertical assets such as water towers), instructions on how to engage providers and issues to consider for negotiating access agreements. These include exchanging access to assets and infrastructure in exchange for reduced service costs and increased bandwidth. These should simplify permitting applications and should consider online portals and applications to increase efficiency and reduce paperwork. This initiative should create a time-limited task force or joint committee to explore whether permitting for rights of ways and easements should be further streamlined through legislation. This task force should explore how other states have streamlined permitting and access agreements, and it should look at the amounts local governments charge providers for permitting and access fees and taxes. AV1.2: State and local governments should better leverage existing federal, state and philanthropic foundation grants to help fund deployment. The Broadband Infrastructure Office should lead outreach to communities to educate and inform leaders about the federal and state funding sources available for broadband infrastructure and initiatives. The state has numerous private foundations that generously support programs that improve local communities and the state as a whole. Many of these foundations have charters to support specific initiatives such as healthcare, economic development and education. Each of these initiatives is, or can be, positively impacted by broadband access. The Broadband Infrastructure Office should collaborate with these entities to identify funding opportunities. The Broadband Infrastructure Office should have a dedicated staff member to educate local communities about available relevant grants through the League of Municipalities, N.C. Association of County Commissioners, N.C. Council of Governments, county commissioners and N.C. Grantmakers Association. These groups should assist local communities and counties with identifying grant programs and grant writing. AV1.3: Incentive providers to lay dark fiber strands. During deployments, providers and other entities relying on fiber-optic networks – including the N.C. Department of Transportation and municipalities – should maximize the number of strands deployed. The relative cost of fiber is minimal compared to the cost of trenching, boring and attaching to poles. Thus, laying additional dark fiber strands while the ground is open can prevent and decrease future expenses. Capacity will be a concern in the foreseeable future, and there will always be a need for backhaul for high-speed wireless networks. AV1.4: Revise county infrastructure ownership regulations. Counties currently build and deploy various infrastructures such as water and sewer on which their citizens rely. These enterprise activities are specifically authorized by general statutes. Infrastructure supporting broadband deployment such as conduits is not. The N.C. General Assembly should amend the general statutes to allow counties to invest in or directly fund deployment of infrastructure with the goal of partnering with private providers for internet service. Specifically, the General Assembly should: Amend G.S. 153A-274 to define "broadband and digital infrastructure" as an authorized “public enterprise.” It should authorize counties to lease or allow commercial use of that infrastructure. Additional language in the provision should specify which infrastructure qualifies and should exclude counties from engaging in providing internet services. This should also allow counties to use the authority granted in § 160A-17.1 – grants from other governments – for broadband infrastructure, as explained below. Amend § 153A-349.60, authorization to provide grants, to provide consistency with the changes proposed above. Currently, this provision allows counties to provide grants to providers using only “unrestricted general fund revenue.” Most counties, particularly disadvantaged counties, do not have the budget to use these funds for broadband incentive grants. AV1.5: Design and implement a dig-once policy. Dig-once policies at the federal and state levels vary in process and form, but all aim to leverage the opportunity to lay conduit and/or cables during road building and expansion projects. In addition to lowering capital expenditures, it allows NCDOT to better manage rights of way by reducing the number of intrusions and determining appropriate pathways. One policy will create uniformity across all regional divisions. The Federal Highway Administration encourages these policies, and other states have adopted them with successful results. The executive branch should create a policy that provides internet service providers with one of several options: NCDOT installs multiple or segmented conduit during projects and enters into a “cost-basis lease” agreement for use by ISPs. NCDOT should consider bartering or exchanging use of conduits for installation or use of fiber-optic cables for traffic signaling and smart transportation initiatives. Notify providers of new road projects eligible for ISP facility installation when projects are announced and include standards, locations and estimated costs. The Broadband Infrastructure Office could provide notifications to all ISPs quarterly. NCDOT should hold biannual meetings with ISPs to review new projects and work through anticipated issues. The Broadband Infrastructure Office should work with the League of Municipalities and the NCACC to create unified standards and best practices for local governments to incentive providers to lay dark fiber or conduits when expanding roads – a dig-once policy should apply at the local level when relevant. The Broadband Infrastructure Office, in cooperation with NCDOT, should create a database for use by ISPs and communities that includes information on broadband-related projects throughout the state, road projects and major state infrastructure projects in locations where gaps in availability or access exist. This will help focus planning and capital where they are needed most. AV1.6: Railroad crossing policy Providers uniformly stated that deploying cables and fiber across railroad tracks is one of the biggest expenses they encounter and one of the most administratively exhausting. One anecdote ended with the provider deciding not to serve a particular neighborhood. The Broadband Infrastructure Office, NCDOT and General Assembly should engage railroads to develop standards and guidelines for access to rights of way and railroad crossings. These should contemplate reasonable costs for traversing areas owned by railroads. A uniform set of protocols should be agreed upon and followed when a provider makes a request. If a voluntary agreement cannot be reached, the General Assembly should enact legislation similar to the statutory rights of providers to access privately owned utility poles. AV1.7: Design and implement a one-touch/climb-once policy for pole attachments. Federal and state laws grant rights of access to poles. However, the negotiation process and expense continue to hinder deployment. The General Assembly should lead a task force to explore the adoption or codification, if necessary, of a one-touch or a climb-once policy. Like a dig-once policy, there are variations of the form and content currently used, but the objective is to reduce the make-ready work for each pole to one action. Typically, when a new provider accesses a pole, it must wait until the other inhabitants of the pole move their lines first. This results in multiple companies accessing the pole. A one-touch policy would allow prospective attachers to use independent, utility- or owner-approved, certified contractors to perform all make-ready work under the joint direction and supervision of the pole owner. This promotes safety and limits disruptions to the right of way, typically a road. This policy should also address the need to develop an affordable, statewide range for attachment fees and make-ready work costs. Recommendation 2: Assistance to communities, counties and regions to support public-private partnerships AV2.1: Expand the definition of those who get reimbursed for road move costs. Utilities and internet service providers bear the cost of moving their facilities during road construction. The N.C. Department of Transportation does not charge these entities for access to rights of way. However, NCDOT and ISPs should explore with the U.S. Department of Transportation the use of federal funds to offset these costs, which will provide ISPs with capital to expand and improve their facilities. AV2.2: Implement pilots like partnering with the U.S. Army Reserve to lay fiber. Local communities working with ISPs should leverage low-cost and voluntary resources to perform trenching and boring. The U.S. Army Reserve has partnered with communities in the Appalachian region to dig trenches and perform other manual tasks associated with deployment. AV2.3: Design and implement a grant program for local governments. The state provides and administers a grant program to help communities with path creation and infrastructure investments to offset and reduce capital expenditures. Past grant programs, such as the Broadband Supply-Side Grant, offered by the state to incentive deployment, are part of the mix of programs that have positioned the state as one of the most connected in the nation. A low-dollar grant could provide communities with resources they currently lack: grant writing, planning and inventory assessments. These activities empower communities to develop equal partnerships with and incentive ISPs that cannot justify a business case to deploy or upgrade network facilities. Any state grant or incentive program should be technology neutral but should require the ISPs to have the capability to scale to a specific speed threshold. Existing grant programs like the Community Development Block Grant program provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered by the N.C. Department of Commerce and Department of Environmental Quality can serve as examples for designing this grant. AV2.4: Design and implement a loan program for local governments. As an alternative or an addition to grant programs, the state should explore creating a dedicated fund to offer low-interest loan guarantees to communities looking for capital assistance using existing available state funds. The federal government and other state models, such as the N.C. DOC’s and DEQ’s Community Development Block Grant Revolving Loan Fund could serve as an example when designing the fund and identifying its funding source. AV2.5: Update state building codes so that buildings are broadband capable. The N.C. General Assembly, through an existing committee or a joint committee, should study building codes and determine best options for ensuring all new and renovated state-owned or state-funded properties allow for access points to facilitate fiber-optic and wireless equipment. The code should encourage building design and materials facilitate wireless penetration. Recommendation 3: Leverage ongoing research and development of next-generation technologies to reach non-adopters and last-mile deployment AV3.1: Create a small grant program. The grant program would have few restrictions and would allow the state to partner with next-generation technology companies to create pilots and test solutions. This could include partnerships with other state agencies and their offices, nonprofits, grantmakers and for-profit companies, such as (but not limited to) the N.C. Department of Commerce, Department of Public Safety, Department of Public Instruction, N.C. DOC’s Office of Science, Technology and Innovation, GoldenLEAF and N.C.-based companies. The grant program would fund research to leverage technologies to expand access, such as non-terrestrial technologies, small-cell technologies and white space. It could also fund pilots for testing residential-pointed (pointed directly at households) mobile access.