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Lack of Streamlined Utility Pole Access a Concern for Broadband Initiatives in New York

‘We definitely saw [pole attachments] as one of the major risks for ConnectALL.’

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Photo of Ali Mohammed from NYPA, Chris Fisher of MYS Wireless Association, William Acee Mayor of Sherbourne, Jeff Gavlinski of Telecom and Wireless Associations (left to right) on June 28

July 19, 2022 – Utility pole attachments are a major concern for policy makers of New York’s $1 billion broadband initiative, ConnectALL, said representatives from New York Power Authority at an industry summit late last month.

“We definitely saw [pole attachments] as one of the major risks for ConnectALL as we had to meet the stringent deadline,” said Ali Mohammed, senior director of digital innovation and transformation at the New York Power Authority, indicating that attachment applications are often lengthy.

Internet service providers will often choose to attach broadband infrastructure to existing utility poles over ground, which is often more economically feasible than putting cables underground. But across the country, lengthy permitting processes and lack of streamlined access to those poles by broadband providers have delayed expansion of services.

Mohammed said it is possible to streamline the application and building process by prioritizing the regions that the provider wants to cover. Many of the regions covered by the ConnectALL initiative are completely underserved, which means that there are few incumbents on the poles, allowing for a faster building process, he said.

The NYPA, which owns nearly 7,000 wood utility poles, is working with New York State Electric and Gas Corporation to identify the regions in New York that have little to no infrastructure on utility poles that would facilitate faster partnerships, said Mohammed.

The ConnectALL initiative, launched in May, marks the largest investment in New York’s digital infrastructure to date and aims to expand broadband access, affordability, and equity statewide. It is headed by NYPA, the largest state public power organization in the nation.

There is considerable debate regarding the responsibility of pole attachers to pay for replacing poles. In June, the Federal Communications Commission issued a proposed rulemaking on removing barriers to infrastructure investment, including addressing the tension between pole owners and attachers regarding replacement and repair costs of poles.

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition submitted a comment to the FCC in June commending the commission’s efforts to address these issues. “Leveraging existing infrastructure such as utility poles can reduce the costs of deployment and help to solve this digital disparity,” read the comment.

Contributing Reporter Teralyn Whipple, who joined Broadband Breakfast in 2022, studied marketing at Brigham Young University. She has reported extensively on broadband infrastructure, investments and deployment. She has also headed marketing campaigns for several small companies.

Infrastructure

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.

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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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FCC

FCC to Consider ‘Rapid Response Team’ for Pole Attachment Disputes at December Meeting

Proposed rules would also put more limits on when utilities can pass full replacement costs to telecom companies.

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Photo of a utility pole by Scott Akerman.

WASHINGTON, November 28, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission is considering setting up a “rapid response team” to resolve pole attachment disputes, according to a public draft of the proposed rules.

The Rapid Broadband Assessment Team, or RBAT, would be available to resolve disagreements that “impede or delay broadband deployment,” according to the proposed rules. The team would be responsible for quickly engaging both sides of a pole attachment dispute and working to find a solution, which can include staff-supervised mediation.

If the parties cannot come to an agreement, the RBAT can place their dispute on the commission’s “Accelerated Docket,” meaning the FCC would adjudicate the issue in under 60 days. Not all disputes are eligible for the Accelerated Docket, as the tight time constraint makes it difficult to resolve novel or complex cases.

The commission is also considering requiring utility companies to provide attachers with their most recent pole inspection information. That’s an effort to avoid disputes before they start, according to the proposed rules.

Expanding broadband networks often involves attaching equipment to poles owned by utility companies. The arrangement has led to ongoing disputes on replacement costs and other issues between telecommunications and utility companies.

The FCC has authority under the 1996 Communications Act to set the terms of those pole attachment deals and is looking to have a system in place for expediting disputes ahead of the Biden administration’s $42.5 billion broadband expansion effort. That authority only stretches to the 26 states that have not passed their own laws on pole attachments.

Pole replacement costs

On pole replacement costs, one of the more contentious pole attachment issues, the proposed rules place more limits on when a utility can force an attacher to pay in full for a replacement pole. The commission’s standing policy prevents pole owners from passing off replacement costs if the new pole is not “necessitated solely” by an attacher’s equipment.

Since the commission first sought comment on the issue in 2022, 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 draft rules would expand the commission’s definition of a “red tagged” pole, the replacement of which cannot be allocated entirely to an attacher. Under current FCC rules, a red tagged pole is one that is out of compliance with safety regulations and has been placed on a utility’s replacement schedule.

The updated definition would do away with the compliance requirement, defining a red tagged pole as one flagged for replacement for any reason other than its inability to support extra telecom equipment.

The proposed rules also explicitly clarify some situations in which replacements are not “necessitated solely” by new telecom equipment, including when a pole fails engineering standards or is already on a replacement schedule.

In addition, the rules specify that when an already defective pole needs to be replaced with a larger pole to accommodate new equipment, the attacher would only be responsible for the extra cost of the larger pole, not the cost of an equivalent pole.

If the proposed rules are approved, the FCC would also look for comments on processing bulk pole attachment applications and on changing rules on when attachers can do their own work to prepare a pole for attachments.

The measures will be voted on at the commission’s December 13 meeting.

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Funding

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.

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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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