Stuart supports telecom bill in D.C. testimony


MTE President and CEO John Stuart testified in Washington, D.C. last week in support of a bill that would exclude communication projects from duplicative agency reviews. Courtesy photo
By: 
Philip A. Janquart
Midvale Telephone Exchange (MTE) President and CEO John Stuart testified in Washington, D.C. last week in support of a bill that would ultimately help bring broadband service to rural areas in a timelier manner.
 Introduced by Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-ID), HR 4141 is intended to, “provide that certain communications projects are not subject to requirements to prepare certain environmental or historical preservation reviews,” the historical component referring to potentially sensitive Native American sites that could be disturbed throughout the scope of any given project.”
 Stuart, a Weiser resident, is a past president of the Idaho Telecom Alliance and current director with WTA-Advocates for Rural Broadband, a national industry association.
 “The legislation provides a measured and reasonable streamlining of federal permitting rules to ensure that broadband can be deployed quickly to served and underserved communities,” he stated, speaking before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands on June 22. “I’ve made more than a few trips over my career to Washington, D.C. and while there are many subjects that people disagree on, I’ve noticed that most everyone is in agreement that all Americans need to be connected to high-speed broadband. It is vital for communication, public service, public safety, commerce, healthcare, education, and more.”
 To see Stuart’s full testimony before the subcommittee, visit https://naturalresources.house.gov.
 He specifically testified to the impacts of current NEPA (National Environmental Protection Agency) and NHPA (National Historic Preservation Act) requirements that are triggered whenever a federally funded project is proposed on government-controlled lands.
 And due to the enormous financial commitments required for broadband infrastructure, almost all telecommunication companies must, to varying degrees, rely on federal dollars such as the BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Development) program, that in the near future will make some $42 billion of federal funds available to companies nationwide aiming to provide or improve service.
 Under HR 4141, however, those specific projects would receive a categorical exclusion from agency review if the area targeted for further development has already been reviewed once before.
 “When we bury cable down a roadway, like Highway 95, or a road in Stanley (Idaho) or even a forest service road that has been obviously pre-disturbed within that right of way, we have to pay to have reviews done, both for environmental and cultural purposes,” Stuart told the Signal American on June 23. 
 Reviews take time – in most cases, six to nine months – and time is money, especially considering the ever-increasing cost of labor, shipping, and materials. 
 In the last two years, the cost of doing business in nearly all industry sectors has risen exponentially due, in large part, to geopolitical factors. 
 It means potential customers living in many rural communities must wait for protracted periods of time to receive broadband service, which companies like MTE and many others are eager to provide. 
 “NEPA and NHPA both have impacts as far as reviews and surveys, and things that are required under certain conditions,” Stuart explained. “In general, it’s only if a ‘major federal undertaking’ is going to take place. But both agencies have interpreted that ‘major undertaking’ to be anything that is federally financed, even if it has already been disturbed and reviewed.”
 Federal dollars come in the form of grants and even loans that automatically trigger the requirements.
 “It’s not like we are going off across a field that has never been touched,” Stuart said. “We are almost always in the shoulder of the road, and it results in an undue cost burden.”
 Weather can also cause delays, Stuart adding that even if a project does get a green light, winter conditions can often add more time to an already lengthy ordeal.
 “If you get permission in August or September, you’re not going to have a contractor or materials available by the time that construction season is over,” he said. “So, now you are looking at May or June to get things back up and started again, so you can add another six- to eight-month delay on top of other delays regarding permitting. We’ve faced up to three years in getting permission to do construction. It doesn’t seem reasonable at all.”
 One of MTE’s most recent projects involves underground fiber that will feed new subdivisions going in on West Ninth Street in northwest Weiser. For that particular project, MTE is using its own dollars. 
 The company, which is 100-percent employee owned and services over 2,000-square miles and over 3,800 customers in Idaho and Arizona, wants to eventually expand its services to Washington County’s southwest region, which many refer as the “Flats,” as well as north Weiser along Highway 95, the Mann Creek area, and east of Weiser.
 But it all takes time and money.
 Congressman Fulcher’s HR 4141 is in its early stages. Now that it has been introduced at the subcommittee level, it must pass committee and both houses before going to the president where it may be signed into law.
 “It could take a couple of years,” Stuart said.
 

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