Google Fiber's pole attachment spat with AT&T, Comcast: something's got to give


Google Fiber is facing yet another pole attachment love triangle in Nashville between the local utility, AT&T and Comcast. While Mayor Megan Barry has asked all sides to come to an agreement, it appears that the telco and cable MSO aren’t showing any signs of budging.

Similar to the fight it waged in Louisville, Kentucky, Google Fiber wants to get a "One Touch Make Ready" ordinance passed. The main goal of such an ordinance is to streamline the city's utility pole attachment process, allowing emerging providers like Google Fiber to install new equipment and wires on existing utility poles owned by AT&T.

Chris Levendos, head of network deployment and operations of Google Fiber, told the Nashville city council during a meeting Monday night that not passing the ordinance would mean that Google Fiber might bypass Nashville.

“Worst-case scenario is either elongation or it just ceases to happen,” Levendos said. 

AT&T and Comcast say their key concerns are twofold: ensuring safety and service disruptions. At the same time, AT&T is concerned that assigning pole work to other third parties could take away assignments from its union workforce.

Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee, told the council that the city’s pole attachment policies are in place to ensure uptime. 

“We appreciate your interest in letting us talk to each other to work it out, and we hope that you recognize that this is not a process that is needlessly complex,” Phillips said. “It’s a process where people can get hurt when things aren’t done correctly. Service gets interrupted when things aren’t done correctly.”

Andy Macke, vice president of government and community affairs for Comcast, said its experience with a One Touch Make Ready policy overseen by Google Fiber in another market had a "50 percent failure rate."

“The reality is nobody’s going to care for your stuff like you do,” Macke said “One Touch does remove a private ownership and caring for network activities.”

Google Fiber’s move into Nashville has been slow going. What’s driven Google Fiber to want to use aerial poles is that the hard limestone in Nashville makes it challenging to dig trenches to lay 90 percent of the planned 3,200 miles of fiber it would need to serve the city’s residents with its 1 Gbps service.

Over in Louisville, the majority of the poles are owned by AT&T and Louisville Gas & Electric. AT&T filed a suit against the city, saying that the Louisville ordinance violates a number of state and federal laws.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Frontier joined AT&T in their fight over fear that Google Fiber or another will lobby for similar changes in its markets. Frontier said in a brief in a U.S. District Court that this ordinance is "unprecedented” and that it “expands the rights of third parties to use privately owned utility poles.”

Google Fiber is hardly alone in wanting to use existing pole infrastructure to lay fiber. CenturyLink, in building out its GPON networks in brownfield markets, has targeted areas initially where it can use existing utility poles.

Service providers may see using existing poles as a time saver, but some construction companies like Henkels & McCoy say that the pole attachment issue can vary according to what market a service provider is trying to operate in for service. Some markets like Oregon follow the electrical codes closely and are mindful of how utilities maintain their pole infrastructure, for example.

Duke Horan, telecom program manager for the Western region at Henkels & McCoy, told FierceTelecom that using aerial poles isn’t as easy as it seems.

“Once you have to move things around on a pole and you start looking at a mass deployment all of a sudden you realize that it is going take as much time to get the pole ready to hang a new cable on it than it is to install the new cable,” Horan said. “It seems like it should be a huge time saver by going aerial and utilizing infrastructure, which in many cases it is, but in many cases it isn’t.”

What’s interesting about the situation in Nashville is that it comes amidst reports highlighting Google Fiber’s struggle to scale its fiber network. To complement its fiber network build, Google Fiber is looking at other technology alternatives like millimeter wave wireless and leveraging existing dark fiber networks in cities like Huntsville, Alabama.

While a lot of attention lately has been paid on how Google Fiber is looking at various options to scale its network roll out -- including the use of millimeter wave wireless which has raised hype that it’s abandoning its fiber play -- this battle shows that the greatest challenge is actually a business and policy issue, not technology.

But what’s really at danger here is that a new competitor may be blocked from entering a large market to challenge the duopoly that AT&T and Comcast have enjoyed for decades.--Sean