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FAST Federal Permitting? It Depends

One of the biggest challenges facing new broadband networks is the paperwork, specifically the environmental reviews and permitting approvals needed before construction can start. Created in 2015 as a part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (Federal Permitting Council for short) is tasked with being a federal Center for Permitting Excellence and currently manages a portfolio of nearly $100 billion in large-scale infrastructure projects, including a couple of broadband networks.  

“With the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, my office now has the tools and resources that we need to effectively support delivery of broadband across the country,” said Eric Beightel, Executive Director, Federal Permitting Council. “But none of that work that we are going to do is possible without buy-in and full participation from stakeholders in the process, including industry leaders, like the membership of the Fiber Broadband Association.”  

Title 41 of the FAST Act created the Federal Permitting Council, a coordinating group for the 13 federal agencies involved in infrastructure delivery, as well as representatives from the Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality. Projects covered by FAST-41 require agencies to create a permitting timetable to increase predictability of when milestones are hit, with regular meetings between permitting agencies and project sponsors to ensure everyone is on the same page and is advancing projects on schedule. It also provides a schedule permitting dashboard to provide targeted support and transparency for projects covered by the Act.  

But the council is also providing funding to get more federal staff focused on broadband permitting, with nearly $25 million allocated from the Inflation Reduction Act to support up to 60 new staff at the participating federal member agencies.  

Not every broadband project is eligible for FAST treatment, but Beightel sees more opportunities ahead. “There are two categories that are every ripe for coverage,” he said. “First being the tribal [broadband] projects, as long as it’s subject to NEPA and is sponsored by a tribe or/and located at least partially on tribal lands. But there’s also the discretionary criteria, which allow us to identify other projects that are complex enough that would warrant the council’s active involvement between tribal and discretionary. We believe that we can reach out to cover additional projects, even though they may not be the most complex. We recognize the importance of broadband in overall advancement of the administration’s priorities.” 

Can your broadband project find its way to the federal FAST-41 permitting track? Listen to the latest Fiber for Breakfast to learn more.