Update NEPA to Help Drive America’s Digital Potential

At yesterday’s public hearing hosted by the Council on Environmental, I had the opportunity to talk about the digital potential of rural America and how an updated NEPA permitting process could help unlock investment.     

In our 2019 report, “Unlocking the Digital Potential of Rural America,” our research showed that nearly 20% of rural small businesses in America generate the vast majority of their revenue by selling their products online.  About half of rural small businesses sell their products and services online on their own website or through a third party website. 

Better infrastructure would allow for greater use of these digital tools and technology in rural small businesses across the country.  We estimate that if given access to digital tools, rural small businesses could innovate and add nearly $47 billion to U.S. GDP. 

The economic opportunity is there; however, many rural areas of the country lack the necessary infrastructure to bring about this potential.   A recent article posed several scenarios that may play out in the lives of rural Americans.  In one, “a sixth grader, who is trying to finish an online project, can only complete this assignment while sitting in her parent’s car in the parking lot of her school.”  In another, “a physician, whose patient lives more than an hour away, wants to utilize remote patient monitoring technology, but is unable to do so.”

These types of scenarios could be addressed and more opportunities given in rural areas, by streamlining the permitting process for rural broadband, whether wireline connections on poles or underground equipment, as well as emerging 5G wireless technologies. The wireless communications industry that is building out new 5G networks has described the permitting obstacles it faces in part due to NEPA: “It can take about an hour or two to install a small cell that’s roughly the size of a pizza box on a streetlight or utility pole, but it can take a year or more to get the necessary permits.” With the industry aiming to install 800,000 such cells in the coming years to make 5G a reality, it is not difficult to understand how NEPA permitting delays could slow the rollout of this beneficial new technology.”

The telecommunications sector is just one of many areas that face NEPA-related burdens. Since NEPA was last comprehensively updated in the late 1970s, the time it takes to complete environmental reviews has increased to four and a half years on average.  

CEQ’s updates are meant to restore the original intent of the program.  In the original implementing regulations from the 1970s, the rule tells federal agencies to “reduce paperwork and the accumulation of extraneous background data” and that NEPA documents “must concentrate on the issues that are truly significant to the action in question, rather than amassing needless detail.” 

Streamlining NEPA’s procedures will help America meet the demand for highly efficient communications infrastructure.  The cloud has transformed the telecommunications industry sparking an enormous need for faster internet and 5G networks.  This has spurred the development of innovative technologies that demand higher rates of data transfer to perform speech recognition, navigate, enable digital assistants, use virtual reality, to name a few. 

The federal government owns or administers close to 30 percent of all land in the U.S. as well as thousands of buildings, and funds state and local transportation infrastructure.  Improved processes for broadband deployment would increase broadband facilities servicing rural communities, improve services in urban areas, enhance public safety by providing improved emergency communications, spur competition between broadband providers, and multiply the public benefits of existing federal infrastructure investments.

We support the proposed NEPA update to increase transparency and predictability as well as improve coordination among federal agencies to eliminate unnecessary barriers that prevent or delay the implementation of critical projects.  Improved regulatory predictability would allow businesses to plan and invest with confidence while enhancing economic productivity and efficiency. 

Jordan Crenshaw is Executive Director and Policy Counsel of C_TEC (Chamber Technology Engagement Center).