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California Mulls Lingering Issues With Pole Attachments

Pole attachment stakeholders disagreed on next steps after the California Public Utilities Commission’s October one-touch, make-ready (OTMR) decision in docket I.17-06-027 (see 2210200073). In comments received Tuesday, pole owners resisted attachers urging the CPUC to speed the pole replacement process. Telecom companies rejected more OTMR safety requirements proposed by workers and increased fees for unauthorized attachments sought by two electric companies. San Francisco sought municipal access to private poles.

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CPUC should study how to expedite pole replacements, while encouraging owners to take interim measures to reinforce or retrofit poles, commented Verizon Wireless. “There are many cases where we have been unable to deploy facilities due to the lack of existing [investor-owned utility (IOU)] infrastructure to which we could attach. To the extent that available space exists on other IOU infrastructure, [right of way (ROW)] access will further expedite deployment of broadband and other services.” The California Cable and Telecommunications Association wants the CPUC to let attachers "use utility-selected contractors for pole replacements when a utility is unable to complete a replacement within a reasonable timeframe,” CCTA said.

Pole owner AT&T disagreed. "Pole replacements triggered by attachment requests are rare, and there is no evidence that the need for pole replacements adversely affects broadband infrastructure deployment,” AT&T said. “From 2019-2021, AT&T ILECs approved over 137,000 pole attachment requests for wireline facilities on poles in its 21-state ILEC region,” but only 0.35% required pole replacements.

Crown Castle statistics painted a different picture. “In 2021 and 2022, Crown Castle found that approximately half of its small cell wireless node installations for a large project in northern California required a pole replacement,” the company said. “Crown Castle has experienced significant delays in the pole owners’ performance of pole replacements.” A self-help remedy would let attachers hire contractors to replace poles if the owner won't do it quickly, said Crown Castle.

Pacific Gas & Electric prioritizes replacing poles that pose the biggest risks to safety, it commented. "Poles immediately at risk are scheduled and completed within 5 days of internal compliance verification,” PG&E said. “Lower risk poles are scheduled to be replaced within 90 days. Because attachers proposing to overload poles typically identify poles that are otherwise fit for service, urgent pole replacements are properly and necessarily prioritized over proposed overloads.” Pole replacements take San Diego Gas & Electric 10 months on average, that utility said.

The CPUC must do more to ensure safety, said Communications Workers of America (CWA) and Coalition of California Utility Employees (CUE). They proposed that the CPUC prohibit attachers from working above the communications space, and require attachers to use utility-approved contractors, contractors to show proof of workers compensation insurance, employees to have Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 10 cards, attachers to submit photographs with metadata of completed work, creation of a publicly accessible electronic database for contractor verification, penalties to be established and a working group on pole attachment process issues to be set up.

The worker groups “seek to ensure basic public and worker safety protections that are already common practice among responsible companies in the broadband construction sector,” said CWA and CUE: Their proposals would increase safety “by ensuring workers assigned to make-ready work have necessary training and basic protections that are already in place for utility employees.”

"Such matters are not within the Commission’s jurisdiction or competence and such regulation is unnecessary,” countered Verizon. CPUC "rules already require utilities to maintain a list of qualified contractors for OTMR, and these contractors would not be retained unless they comply with all labor laws, including having the appropriate insurance and other requirements to work on utility poles." The OTMR decision required contractors to follow safety guidelines and all local, state and federal safety rules, the carrier added. Also, the CPUC shouldn't delay OTMR implementation pending development of an electronic database of contractors, which Verizon doubts would add anything anyway, it said.

AT&T doesn’t oppose requiring proof of workers' compensation insurance and certifying employees have OSHA 10 cards, but FCC and CPUC rules already require much of what the union wants, the carrier said. AT&T opposes developing a new electronic database because it already publishes a list of its authorized contractors online. Crown Castle and Sonic Telecom also opposed the CWA and CUE proposals.

Southern California Edison sought to increase a $500 fee for unauthorized attachments to $2,000. The current fine is 25 years old and the problem hasn’t abated, SCE said. PG&E, which supports a $2,500 fee, submitted a table showing it had flagged 4,685 potential unauthorized attachments in the last five years, with nearly three-quarters of them in 2021 and 2022.

Telecom and cable groups opposed increasing the fee. "Validating or invalidating an unauthorized attachment claim is expensive and time-consuming already, as such records-intensive issues can be costly to research and dispute,” AT&T said. “Issues regarding allegedly unauthorized attachments typically do not involve alleged intentional misbehavior, but rather come down to disputes over records.”

"Allegations of unauthorized attachments often involve instances in which the joint pole association’s final billing process is not complete but the attachment was approved by the pole owner and installed -- and not intentional acts of attachments being installed without a permit,” said Crown Castle. “Because the $500 penalty already is highest penalty in the nation, it is appropriate for the Commission to place the burden on SCE and PG&E to demonstrate the need for their proposed increases to this amount.”

To expand an effort to bring free broadband to affordable housing residents, San Francisco "would benefit from access to poles and conduits owned by public utilities including the investor-owned electric utilities and telecommunications providers,” commented the city and county. California's constitution and public utilities code gives the CPUC broad authority to "require public utilities to allow municipal governments to access their poles and conduits to the same extent, and under the same terms and conditions, as certificated" phone, wireless and cable TV companies. Southern California Gas Company supported giving tribes and local governments nondiscriminatory access to its poles.