WASHINGTON INSIGHT

APWA Priority: Protect ROW management authority in potential Telecom Act rewrite

Jim Fahey
Director of Government Affairs
APWA Washington Office

Nearly a decade has passed since enactment of the landmark 1996 Telecommunications Act. Since then, the world has witnessed rapid changes and unprecedented innovation in technology and communications, and it has seen a tremendous expansion in the availability of services and new choices to meet a growing demand for information. Wireless, broadband, broadband over power lines, Internet telephony, digital broadcast programming and video over the Internet are but several examples of the changing technologies shaping the nature of communications in our society today and for the future.

The changes, however, are not merely revolutionizing the way we communicate and transmit information; they are placing new strains on the regulatory framework governing telecommunications policy. Congress is aware of this and has spent the past year considering a rewrite of the 1996 Act. Although no comprehensive legislation has yet been proposed, several committees in the House and Senate throughout the year have held hearings to address specific telecommunications issues related to taxation, competition, technological innovation and other matters.

Tax issues and tax reform constitute a major portion of the rewrite debate, and local governments are working to preserve local taxing authority to sustain their public interest obligations. In addition to tax issues, preserving local authority to manage public rights-of-way represents another significant issue. Although the 1996 Act preserved local government authority over management of its public rights-of-way, that authority continues to face challenges.

Protecting local control remains an important policy objective for APWA and local governments. APWA's position on public rights-of-way management calls on Congress to uphold the authority of public agencies to manage public rights-of-way, which includes the ability to charge and receive fair and reasonable compensation for their use.

Ensuring local authority to manage public rights-of-way is an essential element in meeting public interest obligations, just as with preserving taxing authority. Much of the infrastructure installed or upgraded to provide new telecommunications services runs through local public rights-of-way. Local governments have a fiduciary responsibility to manage the construction and usage practices within the public rights-of-way—a public asset valued at more than $7 trillion—in order to ensure public safety, the efficient operation of infrastructure and fair access for providers of privately-owned services.

Preserving local control is one of APWA's top advocacy priorities, and as Congress considers a rewrite, APWA's message to policy-makers has been clear: Decisions regarding management and control of local public rights-of-way belong to local governments. That message has been delivered through congressional briefings and member meetings with congressional offices. As Congress began considering a rewrite this year, APWA member Roger Buell, chair of APWA's Utilities and Public Right-of-Way Technical Committee, conducted a congressional staff briefing in Washington, D.C. and presented APWA's advocacy positions to staff members responsible for telecommunications and public works infrastructure issues.

Because the issues Congress is considering are complex and many of them controversial, a timeline for a comprehensive rewrite continues to slip, and some issues are expected to be addressed in separate legislation, such as the issue of implementing the transition to digital broadcasts. As the debate moves forward, however, APWA and local governments continue to make the case in support of protecting local authority over management of the public rights-of-way.

Jim Fahey can be reached at (202) 218-6730 or jfahey@apwa.net.