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Frequencies, Towers, Poles: WISPA Panel on Regulatory Hurdles for Broadband

Main considerations for wireless tower builders are Tribal sites, airports and endangered species



Photo of Jason Guzzo, CEO of Hudson Valley Wireless

LAS VEGAS, October 10, 2023 – Experts dove into common regulatory hurdles for both wireless and fiber broadband builds on Monday at WISPAPALOOZA, the annual conference of small internet providers.

Frequency and approved devices

Devices communicating with radio frequencies regulated by the Federal Communications Commission must undergo an approval process, said Jason Guzzo, CEO of broadband provider Hudson Valley Wireless. 

That’s usually handled by manufacturers, but carriers should be aware of equipment produced by companies that violate the Secure Networks Act – namely Huawei and ZTE. These and three other Chinese companies are compliant from a technical perspective, but are deemed national security threats under the act, Guzzo said. 

The act allocated $1.9 billion for small providers to replace equipment from Huawei and ZTE, but the FCC and providers have signaled this is almost certain to be deficient by roughly $3 billion. The deadline for the initial round of funding passed on July 15, with efforts to top up the fund currently stymied in Congress

There is also an upcoming addition to the standard 2.4 and 5 Gigahertz frequency bands open for unlicensed use, said Josh Luthman, president of Imagine Networks. In 2020, the FCC freed up the 6 Ghz band, making over 1,200 Mhz available for devices to connect to the internet, 850 of which can be used outdoors. 

But the soon-to-be-deployed devices using that band, Luthman cautioned, will have to use an automatic frequency coordinator, a system that confirms connected devices are not interfering with licensed frequencies. 


For fixed wireless carriers looking to construct new towers, Guzzo said, there are three main considerations: endangered species, Tribal sites, and airports.

The FCC requires tower projects to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, which involves reporting the environmental impacts of a planned project. That will involve a screening for endangered species with tools from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“They just want to make sure you’re not kicking the birds out to put the tower systems in there,” Guzzo said.

But the presence of endangered species does not mean a project will be scrapped, he noted. Regulatory agencies, both local and federal, will typically work with providers to make a plan for building a tower without disturbing the habitat.

For projects accepting federal funding, a notification will be sent to Tribal communities in the state, as well as Tribes who moved through the area before settling in their current location, to ensure the project will not disturb culturally significant sites like burials.

“A lot of our deployments are in New York State, and we’ve had projects that are weighed in on by the Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma,” Guzzo said.

This process can be lengthy and expensive if there are questions about the significance of the project site, he said, sometimes involving a certified archaeologist coming to the site.

Guzzo noted ballasts are an option to avoid disturbing significant land.

As for the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency generally requires towers above 200 feet to be registered and marked with lights and bright paint. Towers close to that might require a surveyor to get exact measurements, Guzzo said.

For towers close to airports, that height threshold can be as low as 50 feet. If a tower is set to lie in the path of descending planes, some additional FAA paperwork will be required to ensure the tower will not pose a hazard.


For providers who are registered as telecommunications carriers – which some small broadband providers are, by virtue of providing voice or data transmission services – the FCC ensures they can make deals with utility companies to attach equipment to poles and regulates the terms of those deals. Those terms are the subject of some contention, with telecom companies and utilities disagreeing on who should bear the brunt of pole replacement costs.

But some states have their own laws on pole attachments that supersede the FCC’s, noted Rebecca Jacobs Goldman, chair of a cybersecurity practice group at Lerman Senter. Knowing which regulations apply in a project’s jurisdiction is key for successful deployments, she said.

But even for strictly broadband providers, section 253 of the Communications Act of 1934, the same act regulating telecom pole access, can assist in getting equipment deployed, Goldman said. While not applicable to investor-owned utilities, the section prevents state and local governments from putting up significant barriers to broadband deployment.

That can help when negotiating management fees and terms of public property access, Goldman said.

“It’s a great statute to have in your back pocket,” she said.

The FCC announced in September that it is looking to reinstate rules that would classify broadband providers as telecommunications carriers, which would change pole attachment rules and add to the regulations governing broadband providers. The commission will vote on putting the move up for public comment at its open meeting on October 19.

WISPA has urged the FCC to differentiate between small and large broadband providers, arguing its members have too little market share to engage in the anti-competitive practices the rules are meant to curb and are unable to handle the regulatory burden.

Reporter Jake Neenan, who covers broadband infrastructure and broadband funding, is a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School. Previously, he reported on state prison conditions in New York and Massachusetts. He is also a devoted cat parent.

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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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