Charter, Altice USA find a common enemy in investor-owned utilities

Pole attachment issues are nothing new in the broadband space, but a fresh focal point is emerging in the long-running discussion in this arena: the role of investor-owned utilities (IOUs). Charter Communications and Altice USA both flagged their experiences with such companies in recent filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), warning permitting practices implemented by IOUs could slow their broadband deployments by years. The issues are apparently so bad that Altice said it could be forced to take construction underground at four times the cost of its aerial deployment plan.

Altice highlighted the problem in a meeting with FCC staff earlier this month. In a filing recounting the conversation, Altice stated one IOU in particular has “imposed application processing limits which, if allowed to stand and assuming no other delays, would take more than six years just to review Altice’s permitting requests for 40,000 poles.”

Similarly, Charter stated an IOU in Texas has decided application processing, survey and make ready deadlines don’t apply if the operator’s requests in a single month cover more than 3,000 poles. As a result, the operator said it’s been forced to “throttle its applications to avoid crossing that threshold” in order to ensure processing continues in a timely manner.

Charter pointed to other issues with IOUs, including an instance in which one such company in California changed its engineering standards and subsequently concluded 87% of the poles in Charter's application required replacement. In another case, it accused an unnamed IOU in Hawaii of levying unauthorized attachment penalties.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), there were 168 investor-owned electric utilities in the country as of 2017. This figure was miniscule compared to the number of publicly-owned (1,958) and cooperative (812) electric utilities. However, investor-owned utilities served a much larger customer base, counting 110 million customers to the 44 million collectively served by utilities in the other two categories.

The agency noted IOUs are concentrated in densely populated parts of the country along the coasts, with California home to the two largest.

A comparison between Charter and Altice’s coverage maps from BroadbandNow and EIA’s map of investor-owned utilities showed significant overlap, including in California, western Arizona, much of Texas, North Carolina and New England.

Altice and Charter urged the FCC to step in and clarify its rules to ensure applications are processed in a timely manner. The former warned it won’t be able to wait much longer.

“Because of these pole owner practices and the conflicting need to serve consumers quickly, Altice is being forced to consider building out its network underground as opposed to aerially – a practice which Altice’s engineers estimate would cost at least four times as much per mile to successfully complete,” it said.