John Windhausen: Connecting Anchor Institutions to Broadband Requires Access to Poles

The high cost of pole attachments can deter broadband providers from providing service to the anchor institutions and residential consumers.

John Windhausen: Connecting Anchor Institutions to Broadband Requires Access to Poles
The author of this Expert Opinion is John Windhausen, Executive Director of the SHLB Coalition

The devastating COVID-19 pandemic brought to light significant shortcomings in our broadband capabilities and policies. Nearly 17 million students cannot learn outside of the classroom because they lack internet access at home.

Parents who lost their jobs are unable to access the online career resources they need to get back to work. Patients without broadband cannot get the virtual health care.

One way to address this enormous broadband gap is to ensure that the nation’s anchor institutions — the schools, libraries, healthcare providers, community centers, colleges and universities and other critically important public institutions — have affordable, high-quality broadband.

Anchor institutions are the gateway to the community, often providing digital literacy training and sharing wi-fi connections with the general public. Unfortunately, anchor institutions themselves have trouble obtaining the broadband that they need, often due to the high costs and low returns in rural and other high-cost markets.

To address these problems, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition believes policy-makers should provide greater funding and remove the roadblocks that deter greater broadband investment by all broadband providers, including both commercial and non-profit providers.  In particular, we need to reform the outdated, lengthy and costly process of attaching broadband cables to utility poles.

Utility poles are the backbone of the nation’s critical broadband infrastructure and play a particularly important role in connecting rural residents and anchors to reliable, high-speed internet. Broadband providers trying to deploy rural broadband networks often have trouble obtaining permits from pole owners, renting space for equipment, replacing old poles and more.

The process of preparing poles to carry broadband infrastructure, known by industry as “make-ready work,” can be significant.  Worn-down poles often must be replaced altogether before broadband infrastructure can be attached.

The process of attaching equipment to utility poles can cost as much as one-third of total buildout expenses in rural communities. These high costs often deter broadband providers from providing service to the anchor institutions and residential consumers who need it most.

But it does not have to be this way. Policymakers in Washington are currently negotiating the terms of an infrastructure package, which could include significant funding for broadband deployment and adoption.  This omnibus legislation provides a momentous opportunity to make fast and significant progress toward closing the digital divide by ensuring timely access to utility poles, fair cost sharing for replacements and repairs and expedited resolution of disputes that arise.

The SHLB Coalition recently released a set of Pole Attachment Principles to Expedite Broadband Deployment to Anchor Institutions and Their Communities.

The principles we developed recognize the important role that local governments and utilities play in administering these public assets, while also proposing mechanisms to expedite pole attachment policies, We encourage Congress and other broadband policy-makers to take these policies to heart and ensure that schools, libraries, health providers and other anchor institutions have the broadband tools they need to serve their communities.

John Windhausen serves as the Executive Director of the the SHLB Coalition, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) public interest advocacy organization that strives to close the digital divide by promoting open, affordable, high-quality broadband for anchor institutions and their communities. He founded the coalition in 2009 with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He spearheads SHLB’s membership growth and shapes its broadband policy recommendations.

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