FCC to vote on pole attachment reforms this month

Pole attachment rules seem to be back on the table at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Commissioners this month will consider a report and order that, if adopted, aims to make the pole attachment process faster and more cost-effective.

Pole attachments are often a concern for broadband providers that want to deploy aerial fiber, especially in rural locations.

The FCC for years has deliberated on issues such as cost sharing between pole owners and attachers as well as how to add more attachments to existing poles. But it has yet to adopt reforms on its pole attachment regulations.

In a 91-page document released on November 22, the FCC stated its report and order would establish a new intra-agency rapid response team, the Rapid Broadband Assessment Team (RBAT). The task force will be responsible for “provid[ing] coordinated review and assessment of pole attachment disputes” and recommending “effective dispute resolution procedures.”

The report and order would also amend the FCC’s make-ready rules by requiring utilities to provide to attachers, upon request, “information contained in the utilities’ most recent cyclical pole inspection reports.”

Additionally, the Commission said it will seek comment on whether it should take further action to better process bulk pole attachment requests.

One issue that lies with bulk pole requests, according to Former FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly, is the FCC has an “arbitrary threshold” of 3,000 poles and fewer for defined processing timelines and getting relief under its make-ready guidelines.

“Anyone seeking to build broadband networks in sparsely populated, large areas often seeks more than this threshold,” O’Reilly wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.

He suggested the Commission at minimum should set a hard deadline, i.e., six months, to resolve the bulk request item in its Further Notice.

“Can a broadband provider break up larger requests into smaller bites below 3,000 to qualify for Commission action or can they at least get help for the first 3,000 poles under Commission procedures?  I don’t see why not,” wrote O’Reilly.

The Commission in its proposed order also defined a “red tagged” pole as one the utility determined needs replacement “for any reason other than the pole’s lack of capacity to accommodate a new attachment.”

O’Reilly argued the FCC has left “a gaping hole” around how to “fairly allocate” pole replacement costs in most situations, so broadband provider costs will likely “continue to balloon, making it difficult to reach unserved communities.”

The FCC opened a review of its pole attachment rules in March 2022. A number of industry groups and telecommunications companies, like Charter, Altice USA and NCTA – the Internet and Television Association, have advocated for changes. However, AT&T, Verizon and Lumen are among the parties that have argued against pole attachment reform.

Lawmakers are also urging the FCC to take action on pole attachments. In October, West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito wrote a letter to the Commission noting she continues to hear “problems and delays” associated with broadband providers getting access to utility poles.

“Pole access is probably the single largest challenge that this industry is going to face over time to allow people like us to build as fast as possible,” GoNetspeed CEO Richard Clark told Fierce last month.

For GoNetspeed’s part, it’s urged Massachusetts to adopt legislation to simplify the broadband infrastructure deployment process. State regulations on pole attachments vary. As of June 2022, 24 states (and the District of Columbia) have certified that they regulate pole attachments.