Wireless Industry Renews Effort to Access Light Poles

‘Access to light poles is especially needed as wireless providers seek to increase capacity,’ CTIA says

Wireless Industry Renews Effort to Access Light Poles
Photo of CTIA Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Scott Bergmann, taken from X profile

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2024 - Is there a difference between a light pole and a utility pole? When it comes to the right to deploy broadband, there is no difference.

That is what CTIA, a wireless industry trade association, argued in a recent letter to the Federal Communications Commission. CTIA urged the agency to rule that the term “pole” as used in Section 224 of the Communications Act included “light poles.” CTIA said its reading of the law supported inclusion of light poles.

If adopted by the FCC, CTIA’s view would give wireless carriers access to light poles at terms and rates pursuant to current FCC policy regarding investor-owned utility poles. CTIA said such a move would prevent long disputes with electric utilities over pole access, thereby accelerating the national policy to promote broadband. 

The CTIA letter, co-authored by Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Scott Bergmann and Director of Regulatory Affairs Mike Beirne, stressed the need for access to light poles by wireless carriers attempting to roll out next-gen services.

“[FCC] action is well grounded in both policy and law, it will serve the FCC’s goals of speeding the deployment of broadband service and bridging the digital divide,” CTIA said in its filing.

CTIA members include AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.

CTIA argued that access to light poles would accelerate the expansion of 5G networks that rely on small cells. The trade group, citing an industry analysis, projected that these compact, high-speed nodes will make up 80% of future wireless network deployment.

“Access to light poles is especially needed as wireless providers seek to increase capacity in their networks to meet ever-growing data demands,” CTIA said. 

CTIA noted that it first asked the FCC to address the light pole issue in 2019. FCC action was necessary now because “wireless providers that have sought access to light poles have faced opposition from electric utilities, including flat denials of access, as well as attachment charges that exceed lawful rates.”

The result has been to slow the deployment of broadband infrastructure, CTIA said.

“These obstacles remain today and continue to undermine the national policy to promote broadband deployment – a policy that the FCC has repeatedly supported in this and other proceedings,” CTIA said.

Pole owners and broadband providers have struggled for years over the scope of the FCC’s authority. Disputes include the cost of make-ready fees, allocation of pole replacement costs, and the cost to remove attachments no longer in service.

“To the extent that attachers make claims of misbehavior under the current rules, these are highly-fact specific disputes that are best addressed on a case-by-case basis instead of under blanket rules,” the Edison Electric Institute said in a 2022 FCC filing.

CTIA argued that the term “pole” was neither defined nor restricted by Section 224.

“Legal precedent holds that in the absence of a statutory definition, terms are given their ‘ordinary meaning.’ And the ordinary meaning of a pole includes a pole that hosts streetlights,” CTIA said.

CTIA also argued that the reference to “any pole” in the statute supported an interpretation of multiple pole types.

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