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Can Dig-Once Policies Hasten the Close of the Digital Divide?

“Dig once” suggests that it makes more sense to lay the groundwork for broadband expansion through larger transportation projects. But should this forward-thinking idea be mandated or considered a best practice?

Closeup of an excavator digging a trench in the dirt.
As local areas and states keep slugging away at the digital divide, time and money may separate the winners from the losers in the broadband infrastructure game. One potential way to save time and money is through a “dig-once” approach, which refers to the idea of minimizing “the number and scale of excavations when installing telecommunications infrastructure in highway rights-of-way,” according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Last year, York County, Pa., reaped the benefits of having a telecommunications conduit already installed underneath a rail trail, which was built about 20 years ago. The conduit sat unused for two decades but turned out to be a crucial difference-maker when the county used CARES Act money to construct a fiber backbone in a matter of months.

Silas Chamberlin, vice president of economic and community development for the York County Economic Alliance, told Government Technology that the conduit saved the county somewhere between $4 million and $5 million, as estimated by Katapult Engineering. 

So if a dig-once policy can make that much sense, why isn’t everyone doing it? In a 2019 article, BroadbandNow Editor in Chief Tyler Cooper pointed to “shortsighted governmental budgeting.”

“[T]ransportation agencies and public works departments have been known to oppose dig-once on the principle that it creates even more operational overhead, despite the long-term benefits far outweighing the short-term costs,” Cooper wrote. 

With a less acerbic explanation, Jeff Sural, director of broadband infrastructure for the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (DIT), noted how the upfront cost of installing a conduit can be a legitimate fear for government. 

“You’re not sure if it [the conduit] will ever be used,” Sural said. “That money could be kind of wasted. If you’re DOT [Department of Transportation], your budgets will probably be pretty strict.”

Another fear is related to engineering standards, Sural said. There’s no guarantee a given Internet service provider (ISP) will want to use a conduit if it wasn’t built according to the ISP’s standards. Engineering is a tricky business in general: Sural shared a story about a local area putting in a conduit as part of a water and sewer project. Unfortunately, the conduit ended up being crushed by pipes. 

With such disastrous possibilities in mind, North Carolina’s dig-once policy, which hasn’t been implemented yet, amounts to more of a “cost-sharing opportunity” for ISPs. Under the policy, if an ISP submits an easement request to DOT with the intent to install broadband infrastructure, DOT will be notified and will post a notice about the request on a portal for ISPs. 

“If anyone else is interested, they can participate and share the cost with the initial applicant,” Sural explained.

The cost of broadband infrastructure will also influence how Santa Fe County, N.M., ultimately implements its version of a dig-once approach. Joseph Montoya, executive director of the Santa Fe County Housing Authority, said his county wants to install fiber as part of a road project even before a formal policy is approved. 

But it all depends on funding. Montoya said Santa Fe is hoping to receive funds from the federal government. Assuming the county is able to acquire the money, it will move forward with the proposed broadband component — at least that’s the intention now. 

“I never want to say it’s done until I see the fiber in the road,” Montoya said. 

As far as policy considerations go, Montoya explained it’s important to think about what kind of roads would fall under a dig-once requirement. If the infrastructure wouldn’t serve hundreds of people, that could mean a no-go for the broadband component. Moreover, depending on road conditions, a policy requirement may not be appropriate. Montoya offered an example involving a dirt road. 

“Just because we’re grating a road doesn’t mean we intend to lay fiber in the road,” he said. 

One state, Utah, has utilized a dig-once approach since 2000. Lynne Yocom, fiber optics manager for the Utah Department of Transportation, said code 72-7-108 established a dig-once best practice, as opposed to a policy. 

“Sometimes when you have a policy, it can hamper you because you can’t get creative on what you’re doing,” Yocom stated. “You’re having to strictly adhere to a policy.”

As part of Utah’s best practice, Yocom said her team meets with companies once or twice a year to identify opportunities for coordination in relation to DOT projects. The key to making everything work is having a clear and consistent point of contact that companies can reach out to — otherwise, actual coordination becomes difficult. 

“It takes a lot of your time to make sure you have that one-on-one connection with the telecoms,” Yocom said. “In Utah, everyone knows the request comes through me. A lot of states struggle with that … They haven’t really solidified their contact method.”

Furthermore, Yocom praised how Utah’s code emphasizes neutrality. Maintaining a level of fairness has been the “biggest help” to the state when conflicts arise. 

Despite the fact that Utah has won acclaim for its best practice, Yocom said a 2018 federal law suggests that states should have some sort of policy. As reported by Ars Technica, the law can seem a bit strange, as it “merely directs states to lay the groundwork for potential dig-once policies.”

“We’re wrapping our head around what that means,” Yocom said. 

Although Yocom would prefer a best practice over a policy, she admitted that many states are reluctant to engage in dig-once practices. Perhaps a policy is what will finally get everyone on board. 

“Everyone’s afraid that they’re going to be put in these fiber-optic lines and it’s going to be an access nightmare … It’s turned out fine [for Utah],” she said. “It’s not been a nightmare. It’s handled with permits and with safety, like we normally do.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.