FCC Addresses Wireless Buildout Issues At Monthly Meeting

WASHINGTON, April 8, 2011 – The Federal Communications Commission passed a series of measures aimed at expanding mobile broadband access at its April open meeting on Thursday.

WASHINGTON, April 8, 2011 – The Federal Communications Commission passed a series of measures aimed at expanding mobile broadband access at its April open meeting on Thursday.

In a unanimous vote, the Commission passed an update to the pole-attachment rules. The update lowers the rate that utility companies may charge mobile providers for attaching antennas to utility poles. In the past, utility firms have charged mobile provides more than double what they charged cable companies. Under the new rules, the costs are comparable.

The update also includes a new deadline under which pole attachment requests must be resolved. The new rules require utility companies to respond to the request within 148 days.

“It’s not sexy or very exciting and you can quickly get lost in the weeds, but clarifying the rules surrounding rates and access to poles has been on the Commission’s to-do list for longer than I’ve been here—and that’s a long time,” Commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement. “Pole attachments are without a doubt one of the critical inputs when communications providers assess the economics of deploying advanced telecommunications networks. “

Chairman Julius Genachowski called pole attachments the “blood and guts” of the telecommunications infrastructure.

As a companion to the pole-attachment rules, the Commission also issued a Notice of Inquiry requesting comment on current tower siting and right of way requirements.

The wireless trade association, CTIA, commended the FCC through a statement saying, “In stressing the need to unlock greater efficiencies in rights-of way and wireless facilities siting policies to speed broadband deployment, today’s Notice of Inquiry recognizes that work remains to improve wireless infrastructure buildout.”

In a 3-2 party-line vote, the Commission also approved an order that will require wireless broadband providers to enter into data roaming contracts with other wireless broadband providers. This new order will allow subscribers of regional carriers to access data services out of their network.  Similar rules exist for voice roaming.  The Commission found that many larger mobile broadband providers have refused to negotiate any 3G or 4G roaming agreements.

“The news of AT&T’s attempt to purchase T-Mobile makes it even more important for the FCC to continue to make sure that consumers have affordable choices in the marketplace,” said Parual Desai, Policy Counsel for Consumers Union. “This data roaming rule will help in that effort and we will work with the FCC to work on other important competitive issues such as interoperability, special access and spectrum policy.”

The Republican commissioners supported the idea of data roaming agreements but felt that the agency did not have the legal authority to impose the agreements.

“Very often when we act here at the Commission, someone says we’ve exceeded our authority.  But the truth is that these claims of overreaching are themselves an overreach,” said Chairman Genachowski. “During the last four years, the federal courts have issued 16 published merits decisions addressing direct statutory challenges to FCC orders.  The FCC prevailed in 15 of the 16 challenges—94 percent of the time.  I am confident that the same result will pertain here, if this order is challenged.”

Both Verizon and AT&T released statements in which they opposed the data roaming order. The companies claim that they will now have less incentive to expand their wireless broadband infrastructure if they must share it with their competitors.

“By forcing carriers that have invested in wireless infrastructure to make those networks available to competitors that avoid this investment, at a price ultimately determined by the FCC, today’s order discourages network investment in less profitable areas,” said Verizon executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications, Tom Tauke. “That is directly contrary to the interests of rural America and the development of facilities-based competition and potential job creation.”

In contrast, Sprint supported the order asserting that access to data roaming services is necessary to expand wireless broadband services to the entire nation.

By unanimous vote the Commission also adopted a Notice of Inquiry asking for information on how the nation can “strengthen the reliability and resilience” of the communications network.

“Our Nation’s own experiences, in the aftermath of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and violent storms like the one which struck my parent’s neighborhood in South Carolina this week, highlight the importance of having our networks protected from potential failures,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in her statement of support. “The NOI asks important questions about critical features in preventing the outages such as the need for backup power, and backhaul redundancy.”

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