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Impact on IIJA Programs?

Draft FCC Pole Attachment FNPRM Gets Industry Backing

A draft FCC Further NPRM to seek comment on resolving pole attachment and replacement disputes would expedite the broadband deployment to come through programs funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, industry experts told us. Commissioners will consider the draft during the agency's March 16 meeting, which would seek comment on several concerns raised in a 2020 NCTA petition and costs associated with pole replacements or attachments (see 2007170023).

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The item, if adopted, would seek comment on cost-related issues for utility pole owners and requesting attachers. The last time the agency moved on the issue was in January 2021, when the Wireline Bureau issued a declaratory ruling clarifying it's "unreasonable and inconsistent" with Communications Act Section 224 to charge a requesting attacher the entire cost of a pole replacement (see 2101190027).

Expediting access to utility poles is a critical element of extending broadband to unserved communities and closing the digital divide,” emailed an NCTA spokesperson. NCTA "welcome[s] the FCC’s proceeding to explore this important issue and take steps that will speed up broadband deployment,” he said: “If we are to accomplish universal connectivity in America in the coming years, pole attachment reform is a critical step.”

Accelerating dispute resolutions would let households “experience greater economic gains because they will become connected sooner,” said Western Carolina University economics professor Edward Lopez, who co-wrote a December report for Connect the Future on how pole attachment policies affect broadband deployment. The report found pole attachment delays have an average economic cost of $491 million to $1.86 billion per month. It’s a “foregone gain that does not materialize,” Lopez told us. "In this case, it’s not materializing because of a delay in connectivity,” he said, in part because of “out of place pole regulations.”

The Edison Electric Institute and other electric companies “are working with policymakers and other key stakeholders to help build the broadband infrastructure that we need to improve access for unserved and underserved communities all across America,” emailed a spokesperson: "As we continue working together to support the deployment of broadband, it is important for regulations and policies to recognize the cost impacts to customers so that these investments can be made in a way that is fair and equitable."

Pole attachment regulation significantly impacts the length of time it takes to connect families and small businesses to high-speed internet service, especially in rural areas that require access to multiple poles for every home served,” emailed a Charter spokesperson. This proceeding “will be a critical step to achieving 100% connectivity in the U.S.,” she said, because “when poles can be accessed in a timely, fair, and cost-effective way, more people get connected faster.”

ACA Connects backed the item in a February meeting with Commissioner Nathan Simington and his staff, per a filing in docket 17-84. The group said "unjust and unreasonable pole replacement costs inhibit broadband deployment, especially in rural areas where many aging poles are in need of replacement." AT&T, the Utilities Technology Council and CTIA declined to comment. NTCA and Verizon didn’t comment.

The FCC’s pole attachment rate formula can be written in a way that “anticipates and accommodates many of the variations of circumstances that we’ll see across the country,” Lopez said, noting an even split on cost sharing for pole owners and attachers may not make the most sense because pole owners with more market power charge higher rates. The FCC declined to comment.

Limits to access to poles and rights of way "remains a significant impediment to broadband deployment," said the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLBC) in a January letter asking the FCC to begin a rulemaking to clarify cost allocation rules for pole replacements and expedite dispute resolutions. It also asked the FCC to consider "the needs of both wireless and wireline providers for non-discriminatory access to poles and rights-of-way."

"It may be surprising that something as innocuous as a utility pole could prevent us from closing the digital divide, but that really is the truth,” emailed SHLBC Executive Director John Windhausen, citing California's Imperial County Office of Education having to return a $100,000 grant it received for a project because “the unexpected cost to repair utility poles was too steep.” The FCC “has a huge opportunity with its [FNPRM] to make accessing poles easy, so that anchor institutions and their partners can focus on creating broadband access for their communities,” Windhausen said.