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Big Fight Over Costs of Pole Attachments Pits New Entrants Against Utilities

Many of the commenters urge the FCC to change the standards it uses for cost-sharing of pole replacements.

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Photo of FCC Headquarters

WASHINGTON, September 15, 2022 – Pole attachers claim that utility companies place undue burden on attachers regarding the cost of pole replacements for broadband wires.

These broadband companies seeking to put fiber on utility poles made these comments in response to the Federal Communications Commission’s March notice seeking comment. The agency particularly asked about situations where an attacher should not be required to pay for the full cost of a pole replacement and what the proper allocations of costs in those situations should be.

It is also seeking comment on whether the Commission should require utilities to share information with potential attachers on pole conditions.

Complaints from new entrants

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition said in its comments to the FCC that “the current model does not provide a clear framework for both the pole owner and attachers to achieve equitable and balanced cost allocation solutions.”

Under the current model, pole owners are not required to share information regarding the age of the pole, tagged status, replacement, and maintenance schedules. “Without such transparency, the attacher maintains little recourse to contest these costs, aside from blindly questioning them,” read SHLB’s comment.

Furthermore, pole owners frequently leverage their superior bargaining position to insist that an attacher must purchase a new pole for the utility and pay for its installation, claimed the NCTA in its petition, despite admonitions that charges must be reasonable and limited to costs accrued during the attachment process.

Even in the case of make-ready costs, utility pole owners benefit from pole replacements as much as attachers, said T-Mobile in its comments. Oftentimes, poles will need to be updated regardless of attachments, it said. It argued that because both parties benefit, both should contribute to the costs associated.

“Pole replacement charges are substantial drivers of rural broadband deployment costs, and they frequently delay projects that then must be rerouted or redesigned,” said Charter Communications, a cable and spectrum internet service provider, claiming that the unpredictability of costs disrupt project budgets.

“These largely unregulated charges have the potential to impede the success of federal and state broadband deployment programs, and place at risk the national priority to connect all Americans to quality, high-speed broadband,” said Charter.

Utilities say attachers get big benefits

The Utilities Technology Council refuted this argument, saying in its comments that the benefits of pole replacements are “insignificant” for utilities in comparison to the great benefit it provides to attachers. Indeed, access to pole infrastructure per FCC-regulated pole rental rates provides a significant saving to communication companies compared to the cost of deploying and maintaining their own pole infrastructure or undergrounding, added Edison Electric Institute.

Replacements are reimbursed at cost by attachers to ensure that the costs of broadband are not borne by electricity customers, Edison Electric continued. The Council urged the FCC to review disputes on a case-by-case basis, claiming that requiring utilities to share in replacement costs will ultimately delay broadband deployment.

Many of the commenters participating in comments before the FCC also participated in a contentious Broadband Breakfast Live Online discussion on the topic on April 27, 2022.

Cable industry petition kicked off the controversy

The Commission’s notice comes in response to a petition filed by the NCTA – the internet and television association in 2020 which urged the Commission to declare that pole owners share in the cost of pole replacements. It also asked that pole attachment complaints arising in unserved areas should be prioritized in the Accelerated Docket, which allows for a faster resolution of an appeal.

The Communications Act of 1934 grants the FCC authority to regulate the rates and conditions of pole attachments. It specifies that an attacher which adds to or modifies its attachment “shall bear a proportionate share of the costs incurred by the owner in making such pole… accessible.”

In 1996, the FCC clarified the ruling, saying that any party which benefits from a modification like a pole replacement is responsible for the cost of the modification. The Wireline Infrastructure Order of 2018 further clarified that new attachers “are not responsible for the costs associated with bringing poles or third-party equipment into compliance with current safety and pole owner construction standards to the extent such poles or third-party equipment were out of compliance prior to the new attachment.”

Last year, the Wireline Competition Bureau issued the Pole Replacement Declaratory Ruling which stated that it is inconsistent with the Communications Act for utilities to impose the entire cost of a pole replacement on an attacher when it is not the sole cause of the replacement – even if it would benefit from the replacement.

Broadband Mapping & Data

State Broadband Maps Show Significantly Fewer Served Locations than Does FCC’s Map

There is a ‘massive difference’ between federal Form 477 data and state maps in Georgia and North Carolina

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Screenshot of Eric McRae of the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia, at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event earlier this year

WASHINGTON, September 30, 2022 – State broadband maps from North Carolina and Georgia show significantly fewer served locations than do the Federal Communications Commission’s existing data, said a panel at a Fiber Broadband Association web event Wednesday.

For us there is “a massive difference” between Form 477 data and Georgia’s data, said Eric McRae associate director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. McRae said the number of Georgians the FCC identifies as unserved is “miniscule,” while the state’s estimate is between 1 and 1.2 million unserved.

North Carolina also found the federal data lacking: “There are thousands of people that are technically in FCC considered served blocks that typed in their address and said they had no access or came in with 1 megabit or horrible speeds,” said Ray Zeisz, senior director of the Technology Infrastructure Lab at North Carolina State University’s Friday Institute. “We verified, certainly, that the data was overstated.”

With the two state-mapping leaders, J. Randolph Luening, founder and CEO of Signals Analytics, presented the findings of his recent report, which compares data from Georgia and North Carolina’s maps to the FCC’s Form 477 data.

Luening’s report outlines the contrasting methods employed by North Carolina and Georgia. North Carolina collected – and published – the results of 109,000 speed tests, measuring download and upload speeds, latency, and jitter. The Tar Heel State also gathered information on technology type, service provider, and other relevant factors.

Georgia’s process is more like the FCC’s current map-making process: It created a fabric dataset and solicited coverage data from providers on an iterative basis. The Peach State published its data in block-by-block form.

Unlike the maps generated from Form 477 data, Georgia’s maps show the percentage of served locations in each census block. “We’ve been able to get a very accurate count of the number of unserved locations that we have in the state of Georgia,” McRae said.

Imprecisions and inaccuracies in Form 477 data were largely responsible for the inception of the FCC’s current location-by-location mapping project. The Commission is still constructing this map and will accept challenges to the accuracy of its fabric dataset on a rolling basis. The map will be used to apportion among the states $42.45 billion from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program.

McRae and Zeisz agreed a state must launch its own mapping initiative to check the accuracy of federal maps and ensure receipt of its fair share of BEAD funding.

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Satellite

As LEO Industry Grows, FCC Adopts Rule to Limit Space Debris

The vote on space debris comes as an increasing number of LEO satellites are gearing up for launch.

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Illustration of simulation of communications from Globalstar LEO network used with permission

WASHINGTON, September 29, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday unanimously adopted an order that requires operators of low-Earth orbit satellites to dispose of their spacecraft within five years of mission completion.

The new “five-year rule” applies to all low-Earth orbit satellites that are planned to be disposed of via uncontrolled reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. It replaces a non–legally binding recommendation that LEO satellites be removed within 25 years. The adopted order follows the commission’s 2020 further notice of proposed rulemaking that sought comment on the 25-year benchmark.

The commission said it hopes the five-year rule will limit the amount of debris in space. “We recognize the merits of shortening the 25-year period and agree with commenters who argue that a shorter benchmark would promote a safer orbital debris environment,” the order said.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel argued the order would remove an impediment to innovation. “Right now there are thousands of metric tons of orbital debris in the air above—and it is going to grow,” her statement read. “We need to address it. Because if we don’t, this space junk could constrain new opportunities.”

“Our space economy is moving fast,” she added. “The second space age is here. For it to continue to grow, we need to do more to clean up after ourselves so space innovation can continue to respond.”

An FCC press release following the order’s adoption on Thursday noted, “There are more than 4,800 satellites operating in orbit as of the end of last year, and the vast majority of those are commercial low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.” According to that release: “The satellite and launch industry is now an estimated $279 billion-a-year sector.”

LEO satellites are a relatively new source of broadband connectivity. Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans to launch a “constellation” of 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites the company says will bring broadband service to unserved and underserved areas. Last Spring, Amazon announced it agreements with Arianespace, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance for 83 launches.

The FCC approved Kuiper’s constellation application in 2020. Last year, the commission approved Boeing’s proposed constellation of LEO satellites for connectivity. Other companies such as OneWeb and ATS SpaceMobile have also been active in the LEO space.

SpaceX’s Starlink program, the most high-profile satellite player, recently lost a $885.5 million grant from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in August – a decision panned by Commissioner Brendan Carr. Starlink appealed the setback earlier this month.

Other measures adopted at Thursday’s meeting

At Thursday’s meeting, the FCC also unanimously approved three other measures. The commission adopted an order to improve access to communication services for incarcerated individuals with disabilities, an order that will improve the clarity of emergency alerts, and a notice of proposed rulemaking to modernize regulations for television broadcast stations.

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Fiber

Public–Private Partnership Model ‘Most Effective Way’ to Address Digital Divide: AT&T Rep

The company’s president of broadband access and adoption initiatives lauded AT&T’s public-private partnerships.

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Screenshot of Jeff Luong, president of AT&T’s broadband access and adoption initiatives

September 28, 2022 – Touting its fiber build in an Indiana county, an AT&T representative said Wednesday that public–private partnership models for broadband expansion are the “most effective way” to bridge the digital divide.

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Las Vegas, Jeff Luong, president of the telecoms giant’s broadband access and adoption initiatives, said broadband builds should incorporate multiple revenue streams and allow local communities to adapt to their own unique circumstances.  

Luong said his preferred model blends public funds with private funds and the localized expertise of community leaders with the technical expertise of companies like AT&T. He said that AT&T has contracted to build fiber networks using the public–private partnership model in several states, including Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas.

Luong highlighted his company’s partnership with Vanderburgh County, Indiana, where AT&T is building a fiber network. The deal was struck last year and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. AT&T will own and operate the network, investing $29.7 million to the county’s $9.9 million. The county’s contribution comes from the American Rescue Plan Act.

And while he acknowledged the importance of federal investments, Luong emphasized the role of private investments in expanding broadband.

“The bulk of network investment comes from the private sector,” he said. “The upcoming federal [Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment] program has $42 billion to spend on broadband over four plus years. Let’s not forget the top three mobile carriers have [a] combined capital expenditure of more than $50 billion in just this past year,” he said.

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