Dig Once: Using Public Rights-of-Way to Bridge the Digital Divide

Recently, lawmakers in some states have become interested in crafting policies to help bridge the digital divide, which TechTarget defines as the metaphorical gap “between demographics and regions that have access to modern technology and communications and those that don’t.”

The most formidable barrier to accomplishing this goal is the cost of deploying fiber-optic cable.  Datafrom the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office indicates the average cost of deploying fiber-optic cable is about $27,000 per mile.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, “90 percent of the cost of deploying broadband is when the work requires significant excavation of the roadway.”

This expense inhibits the deployment of fiber-optic cable in more isolated areas, as well as those with lower population densities or unfavorable terrain, contributing to the service gap between urban and rural residents. This discrepancy is clearly visible in U.S. Department of Transportation data; between 2001 and 2013, per-mile deployment costs ranged between $6,600 and $267,000 per mile. As a result, state and local governments have turned to cost-saving measures to incentivize rural broadband deployment.

One policy aimed at cost cutting is “Dig Once,” a measure adopted by Arizona, Minnesota and Utah, as well as several municipalities. Simply, these policies seek to save money by minimizing the amount of excavation required to install infrastructure and facilitating access to rights-of-way.

In practice, Dig Once policies attempt to lower the cost of broadband deployment by providing internet companies access to state- or city-owned rights of way. This is complemented by the mandatory installation of conduit for fiber-optic cable during road construction, or by allowing qualified broadband deployments to be installed during road construction projects.

According to Danna Mackenzie, executive director at the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, successfully implementing a Dig Once policy requires leveraging “rights of way that are owned and managed by many different entities.” 

As such, implementations can vary depending on the institutions involved and the resources available.

Some Dig Once policies require the company installing the fiber-optic cable to provide a specified level of service. For example, an Arizona statute requires companies to provide “access and transport to the internet, computer processing, information storage or protocol conversion at a rate of at least one megabit per second […] as established by the Federal Communications Commission.”

The Arizona law facilitates this by broadening the authority of the state’s Department of Transportation to include the transportation of information, allowing the agency to coordinate the installation of multi-user conduit in state highway rights of way.

The statute clearly states that the policy is targeted at rural broadband deployments, applying only to road construction or expansion outside cities or towns with a population of more than 10,000.

The legislation also includes cost-sharing mechanisms; internet companies are required to pay a “cost-based rate” to lease conduit installed alongside qualified roads.

Utah’s Dig Once policy, implemented during the Utah Department of Transportation’s preparations for the 2002 Olympic Games, specified the installation of oversize conduit during road construction, facilitating later broadband expansion.

In 2013, then-Manager Tara Thue of the Utah Broadband Project claimed her state’s Dig Once policy helped make Utah “fastest in the West, which is really impressive when you consider the amount of rural (area) we have.”

Minnesota has adopted a more measured approach that is focused on taking advantage of cooperation between federal, state and local governments. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has created a process that allows broadband providers to install copper or fiber-optic cable when state rights of way are open for other purposes. According to Mackenzie, Minnesota has “a basic statute in place, and we are now looking to align state law with federal law to leverage both state and federal assets.”

Due to the cost of excavating and installing fiber-optic cable in an urban environment, some municipalities also have implemented Dig Once policies. Boston’s Dig Once policy, adopted in 1994, is a “joint build” policy that requires all telecoms to install their cable in shared underground conduits on a shared-cost basis. This policy also designates a “lead company” that is tasked with coordinating efforts between all telecoms involved in the installation process, planning and implementing the installation.

Another approach that has been implemented on the municipal level is called “Trench Once,” which is used in San Francisco. This approach allows for a roadside trench to be left open after construction ends. This trench is later used to bury conduit and is shared among broadband providers, if possible, to avoid the costs associated with additional excavation in areas where the entire right of way is paved. According to San Francisco’s Dig Once Specification, this policy reduces the cost of conduit installed from $128,000 per street mile for the first installation (including excavation of the trench) to $71,000 for the second. This decrease is largely attributable to a reduction in excavation costs.

Although there is no congressionally mandated policy, U.S. Executive Order 13616, issued in 2012, directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to review Dig Once requirements and to work with state and local governments to assist in the development and implementation of best practices, including Dig Once polices. Only a few states have made concerted efforts to cut costs by reducing unnecessary excavation, however. In the follow-on document, the working group conceded that “coordinating the timing of construction projects with utility installations can be challenging because it requires a concerted effort to share information on policies and processes among all parties involved.”