Charter, NCTA hail expected FCC action on pole replacement costs

Operators could soon see long-standing pole attachment issues resolved, with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announcing plans to initiate a rulemaking procedure to address the subject as large-scale broadband deployments ramp up.

In a blog, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the Commission will tackle the topic at its upcoming meeting on March 16. Specifically, she noted it hopes to launch a rulemaking which explores ways to speed resolution of pole replacement disputes “by establishing clear standards for when and how utilities and attachers must share in the costs of a pole replacement that is precipitated by a new attachment request.”

"Easy, predictable access to poles can significantly speed the deployment and lower the cost of broadband infrastructure," Rosenworcel wrote.

If approved, the proposed Second Further Notice would seek comment on ways to resolve disputes in instances where pole replacement isn't solely necessitated by a new attachment; whether the FCC should establish standards for when utilities should be required to pay a proportional share of pole replacement costs; the costs and benefits of early pole retirements; and the scope of refunds the Commission can order when it determines that a pole attachment rate, term or condition is unreasonable.

NCTA – The Internet and Television Association welcomed the news, with SVP of Strategic Communications Brian Dietz telling Fierce “pole attachment reform is a critical step” on the road to achieving universal connectivity in the country.

Charter Communications shared a similar sentiment in a statement to Fierce: “Pole attachment regulation significantly impacts the length of time it takes to connect families and small businesses to high-speed internet service, especially in rural areas that require access to multiple poles for every home served…when poles can be accessed in a timely, fair and cost-effective way, more people get connected faster."

RELATED: Charter walks 30,000 miles to prep poles for RDOF builds

Pole replacements have long been a source of ire for broadband providers, which have argued those attaching equipment to poles shouldn’t have to shoulder the entire cost of replacing them where necessary.

In July 2020, NCTA filed a petition asking the FCC to clarify that pole replacement costs should be shared by both the pole owners and attaching entities. It argued “pole owners routinely incur pole replacement and upgrade costs, whether prompted by an attachment request or not, and derive significant economic gain, including in the form of ‘betterment,’ even when a pole is replaced ahead of schedule.” NCTA also pointed out pole replacement costs add up fast, providing as an example details of one Charter build to 57,000 rural locations in which these accounted for 25% of the total cost of construction.

Utility companies, however, have objected to taking on the cost of pole replacements themselves. In a November 2020 filing, for instance, the eight-member Coalition of Concerned Utilities argued utility companies have voluntarily replaced poles for decades to accommodate new attachers because they have been reimbursed for the cost. A move to shift economic responsibility to pole owners would result in fewer pole replacements and “less broadband deployment, not more,” they contended.

USTelecom also opposed NCTA's request on the grounds that it was "contrary to existing FCC rules and precedent and will not advance the Commission’s deployment goals." The group cast the move as "an attempt to inappropriately shift cable companies’ deployment costs to, in the case of ILEC pole owners, the cable companies’ competitors."

The FCC ultimately declined to act on NCTA’s motion, stating in its January 2021 decision the matter was best addressed through a rulemaking procedure.

Its expected action comes as large-scale deployments of both privately-funded and government-backed broadband infrastructure to underserved areas get underway and the industry preps for an influx of billions in funding for additional projects.

Last month, Charter Communications urged the FCC to take action on NCTA’s petition, stating it has encountered “significant pole delays” as its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) builds have gotten rolling.

“Some pole owners are delaying negotiating new agreements, refusing to process permits and creating artificial limits. We have very few options when faced with such delays, as complaints and lawsuits are adjudicated too slowly,” it complained.

This story has been updated with details from the proposed Second Further Notice as well as USTelecom's position on the matter.