FCC gathers feedback on pole attachment proposal

In the wake of the FCC's December decision to change its rules on pole attachments, industry groups and utility companies are continuing to give their input.

The proposed reforms, detailed in the Commission's third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, aim to streamline dispute resolution processes and enhance transparency to facilitate the expansion of broadband infrastructure.

The FCC also requested feedback on its proposal. While many support the reform broadly, both industry groups (comprising telcos and cable companies) and utility companies (often the pole owners) submitted recommendations to the Commission this week regarding its proposed rule changes around large pole attachment orders, self-help and use of contractors, among other things.

For example, Connect the Future (CTF), a coalition of broadband stakeholders, said in its filing the “FCC actions taken this past December were critical first steps toward addressing some of these barriers, but the reforms needed to meet this urgent challenge remain incomplete.”

Standardized timelines

CTF said it supports the Commission establishing defined timelines for the processing of pole attachment applications involving a large amount of poles. For small orders, the current rules require a utility company to process a pole access request within a 75-day timeline.

In its proposal, the FCC suggested a time limit of an additional 90 days for a utility to complete make-ready for large orders (those involving over 3,000 poles).

However, the NCTA – The Internet and Television Association advocated for a shorter time frame. The FCC’s proposal adding 90 days to the timeline governing larger orders “would result in timelines that are, simply, too long,” the NCTA said in a filing this week. “Adding three months on top of existing make-ready periods for larger orders would extend the total make-ready time period to 165 days (over five months).”

The NCTA filing also asked that the Commission revise its rules to prevent utilities from limiting the number of poles that may be applied for in any set period when “such limits conflict with the FCC’s pole access timelines.”

NCTA, which has long been a proponent of pole attachment reform, said it largely supports the FCC’s proposal to amend preexisting rules, as states will soon start distributing billions in Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) grants with a four-year construction deadline. Projects funded by programs like BEAD, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and Capital Projects Fund (CPF) must be completed on time to avoid penalties, thus “broadband providers must be able to attach fiber to utility poles quickly and in sync with the construction milestones mandated by broadband grants,” the NCTA wrote.

Authorization to use third-party contractors

ACA Connects submitted comments to the FCC advocating for a proposed amendment aimed at facilitating attachers' use of their own contractors for self-help and make-ready tasks, especially in cases where utility-listed contractors are unavailable. Make-ready work encompasses various tasks, from permitting to inspecting and replacing poles, necessary for ISPs to attach broadband cables to utility poles. ACA Connects highlighted the challenges faced by its members, such as Charter, in accessing utility poles due to delays in surveys or make-ready work completion.

"Our members have found that because so many providers, including utilities, are undertaking builds, qualified contractors are often unavailable, which frustrates the use of self-help remedies when utilities cannot or do not complete surveys or make-ready in a timely fashions,” the filing said. ACA Connects recommended that the Commission adopt requirements that expedite access to contractors who perform work safely and reliably.

Similarly, CTF expressed support for the FCC's proposal to streamline the use of self-help methods to expedite the make-ready process. CTF emphasized the lengthy timelines involved in current practices, which can take up to a year even under optimal conditions, without encountering delays.

Meanwhile, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) said that it does not support a rule making it easier for attachers to use their own contractors. In a separate filing CWA argued that its members have seen “a wide variety” of safety and service issues caused by third party attachers who “often employ contractors without the training or experience to complete the work properly.”

“CWA is concerned that telecommunications providers would use such a rule to avoid compliance with collectively bargained contracts that require such work be done by in-house workforce,” it added.

Utility companies weigh in

A group of utilities, known as the "Concerned Utilities," raised objections to a provision in the FCC's proposal requiring pole owners to supply pole inspection reports. The group criticized the lack of prior discussion on the pros and cons of sharing such data with utilities and the public. Now, after surveying its members, the coalition, which includes major companies like Arizona Public Service Company Energy, Inc., Eversource Energy, and FirstEnergy Corp., is prepared to argue against the new Pole Inspection Report Ruling's implementation.

On a separate front, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) voiced broad support for the FCC's Fourth Report and Order, Declaratory Ruling, and Third Notice of Further Proposed Rulemaking, which it called “carefully crafted, and balanced, thus represents a constructive step that will enhance clarity to efficiently allocate costs and provide the parties with the necessary understanding and predictability to minimize disputes and promote deployments.”

Although, EEI expressed concerns over two specific aspects of the ruling, suggesting they might inadvertently hinder broadband expansion efforts. Specifically they called for clearer definitions regarding circumstances necessitating the provision of easement copies and requested clarification or removal of certain rulings regarding pole replacement. EEI argued that these proposed rulings failed to adequately balance the interests and burdens of pole owners and attachers, and didn’t ”assess whether reasonable limitations are necessary to minimize any adverse impacts on utility pole owners.”