Broadband Has a Problem on the Pole

Competitive broadband providers want to take their pole attachment fight to the federal government.

Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video

February 21, 2017

5 Min Read
Broadband Has a Problem on the Pole

To build a broadband network, Internet providers need access to utility poles. The subject sounds mundane, but Google Fiber has repeatedly raised the issue as a major barrier in its efforts to expand gigabit service to new communities. And, although they have fewer resources for drawing publicity, many smaller service providers are working hard to hammer home the same point with lawmakers and municipalities.

At the recent Incompas 2017 Policy Summit, executives from Google Fiber Inc. , Rocket Fiber , Lumos Networks and FirstLight Fiber all argued passionately for changes to pole attachment practices that effectively keep competitive Internet providers from entering a new market. Here's how it works. In certain cities, new broadband entrants have to contact the owner of each utility pole as well as each telecom provider already using the pole in order to have existing equipment moved around to accommodate new broadband gear. In some cases those requests have to be made sequentially, and with each request, it can take up to several weeks or even months for an active response.

Google Fiber famously posted to its blog in September that after many months of work in Nashville, Tenn., the company was still only able to access 33 poles out of 44,000 that needed contract work before Google Fiber could move forward.

The solution, according to proponents, is a one-touch make-ready (OTMR) practice where a single contractor, approved by the pole owner, is allowed to move all of the attached equipment on a pole in one visit.

Google Fiber has fought vigorously for OTMR ordinances, but has been blocked by incumbent providers who say the practice could lead to network outages and other disruptions. (See Gigabites: Et Tu, Google Fiber? and Gigabites: A Love Letter to Nashville.)

FirstLight CEO Kurt Van Wagenen is one of the many supporters of OTMR who is encountering the same problems with pole attachment bureaucracy as Google Fiber.

"In the hierarchy of deployment challenges we face in the fiber industry, make-ready's right at the top," says Van Wagenen, pointing out that the lack of predictability and consistency around timelines and costs for pole attachment construction -- which varies from location to location -- makes it difficult to sell Internet service to prospective buyers.

Rocket Fiber Co-Founder and COO Edi Demaj adds that from a startup perspective, pole attachment issues that stretch construction timelines also make it difficult to pitch investors for capital. Demaj believes that incumbent providers are using that challenge to their advantage.

"I think the incumbents have done a really good job of keeping this stuff on the down-low," says Demaj, suggesting that by minimizing the issue, incumbent ISPs are keeping in place practices that inhibit competition.

The fault, according to competitive providers, doesn't lie only with existing Internet providers. Sometimes local governments are the ones making new network builds difficult by imposing steep costs for access to municipally owned assets. Lumos Networks SVP and General Counsel Mary McDermott says that the city of Hopewell, Va., demanded $2.50 per foot of network build from her company even while it let Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) access the same space for free. The city also demanded dark fiber from Lumos even though, according to McDermott, it wasn't ready to make use of the infrastructure.

Meanwhile, says McDermott, "the local hospital ... [was] waiting for us to be able to build the fiber in."

"Some localities are very easy to deal with," notes McDermott. "Some localities look at you like a way to make money."

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As far as pole attachment rules go, new ISP entrants would like to see action from the federal government.

"It's been a challenge to do it locally ... so I do think there needs to be a federal effort, an FCC effort, FCC oversight," says FirstLight's Van Wagenen.

Rocket Fiber's Demaj agrees that change has to come from the top, but he also makes clear that he thinks regulations can cut both ways. "Regulation is great," Demaj says. "Bureaucracy kills."

Google Fiber Head of Public Policy John Burchett meanwhile, points out that incumbent telecom providers "have more lobbyists in one state than all of our companies added up around the country do, so going to state legislatures, and frankly going to the FCC is not going to always be easy.

If there's one place these executives can state their case, however, it may be in the upcoming forum of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC). The FCC Chairman has called for the creation of the BDAC so that industry members and consumer groups can "make recommendations to the Commission on how to accelerate the deployment of high-speed Internet access, or 'broadband,' by reducing and/or removing regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment." Pole attachment reforms are on the list of topics to discuss, along with local franchising, zoning, permitting and rights-of-way regulations. (See Pai Opposes Title II, FCC Alums Oppose Pai.)

The FCC hasn't named the members of the BDAC yet, but all nominations have now been submitted, and the first BDAC meeting is expected to place in the spring. It wouldn't be a stretch to see many of the executives arguing for one-touch make-ready regulations end up on the BDAC roster.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Mari Silbey

Senior Editor, Cable/Video

Mari Silbey is a senior editor covering broadband infrastructure, video delivery, smart cities and all things cable. Previously, she worked independently for nearly a decade, contributing to trade publications, authoring custom research reports and consulting for a variety of corporate and association clients. Among her storied (and sometimes dubious) achievements, Mari launched the corporate blog for Motorola's Home division way back in 2007, ran a content development program for Limelight Networks and did her best to entertain the video nerd masses as a long-time columnist for the media blog Zatz Not Funny. She is based in Washington, D.C.

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