‘Paint, poles and permitting’: What’s bugging broadband providers

  • At the annual ACA Connects Summit, a panel of regional operators discussed their biggest deployment challenges

  • Unsurprisingly, broadband providers are peeved by pole attachments and permitting

  • According to GCI's Dave Hymas, Alaska's a totally different ball game when it comes to build hurdles

ACA CONNECTS SUMMIT, WASHINGTON DC – If you ask broadband providers about the biggest obstacles to network deployments, permitting roadblocks and pole attachments usually make the top of the list.

At this week’s ACA Connects Summit, Metronet CEO Dave Heimbach summed it up as “the three Ps: paint, poles and permitting.”

“Given the breadth of the footprint we operate in and build in, I can count on my fingers and toes the number of electric utilities that have been good to work with,” Heimbach said. He argued that in many cases utilities are “largely ignoring” the FCC’s rules and regulations about the timeframes in which they have to respond to attachment requests.

Or, he added, they have “undue restrictions” about the make-ready process, which is the work necessary to make a pole, conduit or other equipment available for a new attachment. The FCC is currently trying to reform its pole attachment rules so that pole attachers and pole owners can better resolve disputes.

Metronet is currently negotiating roughly 150 pole attachment agreements and is “in the process of negotiating several dozen more,” said Heimbach, pointing out 80% of the company’s fiber builds last year were underground, while 20% were aerial. As most of the industry is probably aware, underground fiber is typically the more expensive option.

Another challenge, he went on to say, is when municipalities “just have outmoded and outdated” rules and regulations.

“Even assuming we can navigate the electric utility issue on the aerial side, we’re finding ourselves in a pickle oftentimes, either with local permitting authorities or perhaps even the state department of transportation,” said Heimbach.

“So, it’s not uncommon where our builds are slowed dramatically because of the interplay of all those different permitting authorities.”

To make matters even more complicated, these entities all have their own shot clocks (i.e. timeframes in which they have to respond to requests).

“If you don’t get the network built during the shot clock window, you get halted in your tracks,” Heimbach said. “And obviously we’re a privately held company…we’re literally burning cash and fixed overhead in that market and can’t get work done.”

Patrice Carroll, president and CEO of Iowa-based ISP ImOn Communications, echoed Heimbach’s gripes with permitting.

“For us that was a significant learning - when we started really accelerating our build - that we had to start our planning and our permitting about nine months earlier than we had in the past,” she said.

Carroll also pointed out “there are not enough locators in the world.” Utility locating is the process of identifying and marking the location of underground utility lines (water pipes, gas lines, sewer lines, you name it).

“That causes a problem where we build and there’s a lot of rock, so balancing that equation between what’s it going to cost to go through rock versus ‘okay let’s just bite the bullet and get this pole permit,’” she said.

Alaska? I’ll ask ya (about fiber)

Broadband deployments aren’t any easier in Alaska, according to Dave Hymas, legal and regulatory VP and deputy general counsel at GCI.

There, the big issue is topography. He noted that for the operator’s AU-Aleutians fiber project, which aims to bring high-speed internet to a dozen remote island communities, GCI had to lay around 850 miles of fiber under the ocean, “into some of the roughest waters on the planet.”

We’ve chatted with GCI before about how construction time is hampered by the Alaskan climate and how many of the locations where it’s building fiber don’t have access to reliable transportation.

Also, the long lead time between the start and end of infrastructure projects “is tough,” Hymas added. GCI first applied for grants for the AU-Aleutians project in 2018 “to help offset some of the private capital” it was putting in. Deployments didn’t kick off until 2022.

Needless to say, a lot has happened in the world within those four years.

“We had Covid, we had inflation, we had supply chain issues,” he said. “So, projections and the costs that we used to apply for funds and to go to our private sources of revenue changed.”

“By 2022 and 2023, those numbers look very, very different than they did in 2018. So, as we’re putting together projections for BEAD projects, we’re keeping that [in mind].”

Read more about what's happening with the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, here.

This story headline was updated on March 11, 2024, at 11:06 am ET.