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Planning and Flexibility Are Key to Effectively Deploying Broadband Conduit through Federal Highway Projects

GAO-12-687R Published: Jun 27, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 27, 2012.
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What GAO Found

A federal dig once policy would likely have several advantages, including potentially decreasing the frequency of construction on major highways and the cost of installation, while accelerating access to and reliability of broadband networks. However, disadvantages—which could be exacerbated by a requirement to install conduit as part of certain federally funded highway construction—include the potential to install conduit that telecommunications companies might not use and to divert highway funding away from highway construction. U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and state DOT officials we spoke with supported the concept of a dig once policy, but suggested alternative approaches to a federal requirement to install conduit in all covered projects. For example, FCC officials expressed support for a federal requirement for evaluation of the feasibility and need for conduit during federal highway construction, and state and U.S. DOT officials expressed support for a federal role in facilitating discussion and best practice sharing among states implementing broadband deployment policies.

State and local broadband deployment experiences demonstrate the importance of planning and flexibility to effectively implement dig once policies. Officials from states and localities we spoke with have adopted various strategies—including establishing formal coordination processes between state DOTs and local utility companies—but none required installation of conduit as part of all roadway construction. These officials stated that planning and coordination with local officials is a critical step to address a number of considerations that should be taken into account during implementation—such as the location of access points and the appropriate number and size of conduits—to make the conduit installed more useful for telecommunications companies. In addition, officials from states and telecommunication companies stated that the flexibility to take local needs into account in implementing a dig once policy on a project-by-project basis is important and may help to address the potential disadvantages of a federal dig once policy.

Why GAO Did This Report

Affordable access to broadband telecommunications is increasingly viewed as vital to the country’s economic growth as well as for improving state and local systems for traffic management, public safety, and educational goals. According to the FCC, the largest cost element for deploying broadband via fiber optic cable is the cost of placement, such as burying the fiber in the ground, rather than the cost of the fiber itself. Recent legislation introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives would require the Secretary of Transportation to require states to install broadband conduit during construction for certain federally funded highway projects in compliance with standards developed by the Secretary, in coordination with FCC. Both the House and Senate bills would make conduit available to any requesting broadband service provider for a “charge not to exceed a cost-based rate.” Both bills would affect only new construction or highway expansion projects that receive federal funding and would not, for example, affect projects limited to road resurfacing or general maintenance.

Congress requested that we examine proposed federal “dig once” policies that would require the deployment of broadband conduit in conjunction with federally funded highway construction projects as a way to decrease the costs of deploying fiber and eliminate the need for multiple excavations. This report presents information on (1) the advantages and disadvantages of dig once policies and (2) how the broadband deployment experiences of states and localities that have implemented dig once policies can inform the consideration of a federal dig once policy.

For more information, contact Susan A. Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or .

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Fiber optic cableConstructionHighway projectsBroadbandTelecommunicationsPublic roads or highwaysRoad constructionMaintenanceFiber opticsPublic officials