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Middle Mile Infrastructure Just as Important as Last Mile, Panel Says

The funding priorities of IIJA has created the false perception that middle mile is not as important as last mile, experts say.



J. Brent Legg (far-left), Kelly McGriff (center-left), Mike Ellison (center-right), Sean Buckley (far-right) at Broadband Communities Summit 2022

HOUSTON, May 4, 2022 – Experts agreed that educating stakeholders on the importance of middle mile infrastructure is paramount to connect underserved and unserved rural communities.

During the Broadband Communities Summit 2022, experts said that the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act seems to deemphasize the role of middle mile infrastructure and contributes to the lay perception that middle mile infrastructure is less important than last mile.

The IIJA will provide $42.5 billion to improve broadband infrastructure, but only $1 billion is designated to be spent on the development of the middle mile — the transport part of the network connecting to the last mile, which is the connection to homes and businesses.

“There has been a lot of emphasis on last mile, and there should be, but there also needs to be emphasis on middle mile,” J. Brent Legg, Connect Nation executive vice president for government affairs said Wednesday. “A billion dollars does not go very far.”

“[Middle mile infrastructure] is integral,” Kelly McGriff, Uniti Group Inc. vice president and deputy general counsel, said. McGriff explained that even if there is sufficient infrastructure on the last mile side of things, it does not matter, because broadband service can only be as good as its weakest component. “There is no reason to have a massive pipe if all you have is a garden hose connecting it – one hand washes the other.”

FiberLight Vice President of Public Sector Mike Ellison said that even if the last mile is comprised of pristine fiber, connecting that fiber to underfunded middle mile infrastructure that uses copper will create packet loss and latency.

‘Nobody wants to talk about the backhaul’

“People do not really understand what the problem is,” Ellison said. “How [the lack of middle mile infrastructure] is impacting people – how it is impacting schools.”

“The tough part is educating folks about [middle mile infrastructure] and getting them to the table for a conversation,” he said.

McGriff said that when he approaches stakeholders at the local and state level, “Nobody wants to talk about the backhaul,” adding, “There is just not a lot of talking around middle mile.”

“There is a lot of education to be done at the federal level, at the state level, and at the local level,” Legg said.

Legg described how a lack of middle mile hubs and internet exchange points has stunted the growth of networks. “There need to be more hubs need to be built out closer to the network’s edge.”

In addition to creating more hubs, Legg said that middle mile and last mile operators would have to work together to create the best end-user experience. “A huge part of solving this problem [is working with last mile operators to increase bandwidth and lower costs],” he said.

“Last mile connectivity is only as good as the middle connectivity that make it possible,” Legg added.

Reporter Ben Kahn is a graduate of University of Baltimore and the National Journalism Center. His work has appeared in Washington Jewish Week and The Center Square, among other publications. He he covered almost every beat at Broadband Breakfast.

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Verizon Suing Milwaukee to Allow New Telecom Poles Ahead of Republican National Convention

Existing infrastructure is insufficient to handle extra traffic from the 2024 Republican National Convention: Verizon.



Photo of downtown Milwaukee by Amy Meredith.

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2023 – Verizon is suing the City of Milwaukee to construct poles for its mobile wireless network.

Milwaukee denied Verizon’s request to construct poles for three small cell sites – short range antennae that increase a network’s capacity – across from the city’s Fiserv Forum arena.

The complaint, filed November 24, is looking to overturn those denials.

Verizon says the extra infrastructure is needed ahead of the 2024 Republican National Convention, which is set to be hosted at the arena. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the event is expected to draw 50,000 people, with city officials planning to bring in 4,500 extra law enforcement officers.

That heightened traffic is almost certain to be too much for Verizon’s existing network, the company said, and could lead to coverage blackouts. The city, for its part, claimed the proposed poles would “obstruct or hinder travel” and are “out of character” for the area.

The suit is one of several in which telecom companies are fighting municipalities for pole access or construction in recent years. The major infrastructure company Crown Castle has sued five cities since 2018, with Verizon and T-Mobile each going to court multiple times over the issue since 2015.

Telecommunications providers have also been butting heads with private utility companies over pole access, to the extent that the Federal Communications Commission is contemplating setting up a “rapid response team” to mediate pole attachment disputes ahead of the Biden administration’s $42.5 billion broadband expansion effort.

Those disputes often relate to timely access application reviews and the allocation of pole replacement costs associated with additional telecom equipment. The FCC has authority under the 1996 Communications Act to set the terms of pole attachment deals between telecom carriers and private utility companies. That does not include publicly owned utilities or broadband providers that are not covered by Title II of the Communications Act.

The commission’s standing policy is to prevent utilities from passing those replacement costs on to telecoms if a new pole is not “necessitated solely” by new communication equipment. 

That has not stopped disagreements, though. In thousands of public comments and meetings with commission staff, telecommunications companies have argued that utilities unfairly pass the entire cost of replacement on to them, even when poles are already unsafe and would need to be replaced regardless. Utilities say they would not normally replace the poles being used by telecom companies, either because they are structurally sound or to phase out old lines, and don’t benefit from the installation of newer poles.

The same proposed rules that would set up a rapid response team might also be a boon to telecoms. The rules would put more limits on when a utility can force an attacher to pay for pole replacements.

The FCC will vote on the rules and other measures at its December 13 meeting.

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North Carolina Releases Final Guidance on $100 Million Pole Replacement Program

Providers may receive up to $10,000 for each utility pole they replace in unserved areas.



Photo of Nate Denny, deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity at the North Carolina Department of Information Technology.

WASHINGTON, November 27, 2023 – North Carolina’s broadband office released on Monday final guidance for its $100 million pole replacement program.

The program, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, will reimburse broadband providers for utility pole replacement costs. Expanding networks can involve attaching equipment to those utility poles. When a pole needs to be replaced to accommodate more equipment, pole owners typically pass the cost on to attachers.

Telecommunications companies have cited this extra cost as a barrier to quick broadband deployments, something utility companies dispute. The two industries have been in conflict on the issue for years, with both continuing to push the FCC to weigh in on a cost sharing regime.

North Carolina’s plan is an effort to smooth over the issue for future broadband expansion efforts, Nate Denny, the state department of information technology’s deputy secretary for broadband and digital equity, said in a statement. 

“It addresses a significant barrier to closing the digital divide in remote parts of our state,” he said.

Under the program, broadband providers can apply for 50 percent of the replacement cost for each pole replaced, up to $10,000 per pole. Pole replacement costs in unserved areas after June 1, 2021 are eligible for reimbursement. 

The program will kick off in February 2024 and accept applications from qualified providers.

The FCC has authority in 26 states over the terms of agreements between investor-owned utilities and telecom companies, which does not include publicly owned utilities or broadband providers that solely provide internet. The agency is set to vote on updated pole attachment rules at its December meeting.

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FCC to Vote on Pole Attachments at December Meeting

Telecom and utility companies have been clashing on replacement costs.



Photo of utility poles from Flickr user Chic Bee.

WASHINGTON, November 21, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission announced on Tuesday that it will consider rules on pole attachments at its December meeting.

The commission first sought comment on the issue in March 2022. It asked stakeholders for input on how costs should be allocated when utility poles need to be replaced to accommodate new telecommunications equipment. 

Utility and telecom companies have strong positions on the issue. They have submitted over 4,100 comments to the FCC so far and are continuing to lobby, with AT&T and the cable company trade group NCTA meeting with commission staff in recent weeks.

Telecommunications companies have argued to the FCC that utilities unfairly pass the entire cost of replacement on to them, even when poles are already unsafe and would need to be replaced regardless. Utilities, for their part, say they would not normally replace the poles being used by telecom companies, either because they are structurally sound or to phase out old lines, and don’t benefit from the arrangement.

The commission has authority over the pole attachment deals between utility companies and telecom carriers. That does not include publicly owned utilities or broadband providers that solely provide internet. State laws also preempt the FCC’s authority – 24 states have their own guidelines for such deals.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that the proposed rules would “make the pole attachment process faster, more transparent, and more cost-effective.” The commission did not respond to a request for comment on the specifics of the rules.

Lawmakers and industry groups have been pushing the commission to issue rules since the comment period ended last year. In April, more than a dozen major telecom companies pushed the commission to issue rules ahead of projects funded by the Biden administration’s $42.5 billion broadband expansion program, citing potential hold ups from pole disputes.

Canadian regulators ruled on the issue in February, requiring pole owners to bear at least half the cost to replace a pole before attaching telecom equipment. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission found that pole owners do stand to benefit from newer poles.

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