Expanding connectivity, safeguarding infrastructure

Story by Heather Feeney, Public Affairs Specialist  
Photos by BLM-California 

Ensuring that every American has access to reliable high-speed internet service and enhancing the reliability, security and resiliency of the electric power grid are important priorities of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2021.  

The law provides $65 billion to expand broadband access in communities across the U.S., make broadband service more affordable, and address digital equity and inclusion needs through programs administered by the Department of Commerce. It also prioritizes keeping the nation’s infrastructure resilient to impacts of climate change, including wildfires.

The BLM is proposing updates to its regulations that would make it easier for broadband providers to locate new infrastructure on public lands and address the risks of wildfire to and from powerlines on BLM-administered lands.

Today more than ever, broadband internet access is essential for us to work, learn and stay healthy, connected and safe,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, BLM Director. “This is especially true for people in rural and tribal communities, who in many cases live close to public lands. Updating our rules will support efforts to close the digital divide, reduce safety risks associated with wildland fire, and protect investments in infrastructure that is critical to our local and national economies.” 

A communications site with several towers
Broadband infrastructure can be built or installed in a communications site right-of-way (ROW). BLM-administered public lands are often uniquely suited to serve rural and tribal communities, where access to broadband continues to lag.

Communications companies, cooperatives and other private entities ultimately decide where to construct and/or upgrade broadband infrastructure, but the Department of the Interior administers a significant amount of land and existing, permitted infrastructure that can be leveraged to increase connectivity in rural America.

There are about 1,500 communications sites on BLM-managed lands that contain  cellular/wireless towers. The BLM also administers 5,000 miles of energy corridors for power transmission that are compatible with fiber optic and phone lines. The BLM authorizes communications sites and power grid infrastructure as rights-of-way (ROWs).

Two transmission towers in a Southwest desert. Photo by BLM.
BLM energy corridors connect to another thousand miles of similar corridors on U.S. National Forest lands.

If not properly maintained on a regular schedule, tree limbs and other vegetation in powerline ROWs can ignite fires or become fuel for those that start elsewhere, threatening public safety, the security and reliability of the electric power grid, and the many resource values in and adjacent to these corridors.

In 2018 Congress added language to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) requiring enhanced management of vegetation in electric utility ROWs on public lands to reduce the risk of wildland fire. The proposed rules are intended to ensure that ROW holders have operations and maintenance plans that meet congressional intent.  

Tree limbs and other vegetation removed from a powerline right-of-way
Removing tree limbs and other vegetation from utility corridors
reduces the risk that wildfires will ignite within these corridors or
that fires which started elsewhere will burn through them,
leaving powerlines damaged and interrupting service.
Communication towers on a hilltop right of way on public land
An advanced telecommunications network is critical for supporting growth, allowing small businesses to flourish, creating jobs, strengthening the first-responder network in remote areas, and making it possible for communities to remain competitive in the information-age economy.

The BLM is seeking comments on these proposed rule changes. View the proposed rules and submit comments through the Federal eRulemaking Portal. In the Search box at this URL, enter "RIN 1004-AE60" and click 'Search,' then follow the instructions. 

You may also submit written comments by mail, personal or messenger delivery: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Director (HQ-630), Bureau of Land Management, Rm. 5646, 1849 C St. NW, Washington DC 20240; Attn. Regulatory Affairs: 1004-AE60

The comment period closes on January 6, 2023. 

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