Google Fiber: Title II reclassification could ease access to utility poles, rights-of-way

Google Fiber (NASDAQ: GOOG) wrote in an FCC filing that if the FCC proceeds with reclassifying broadband providers under Title II of the Telecom Act, it could enable it to more readily gain access to utility poles and related infrastructure like ducts owned by electric and gas utility companies.

Austin Schlick, Google's director of communications law, said in a letter that all service providers, including Google Fiber, would gain the same access to utility poles that have been mainly given to traditional telcos and cable operators like AT&T (NYSE: T) and Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA).

"As the Commission considers regulatory classification of broadband Internet access service ("BIAS"), the question of forbearance pursuant to Section 10 of the Communications Act also arises," Schlick wrote in a letter to the FCC. "Should the Commission determine that BIAS is a telecommunications service, then Section 224 of the Act would afford all BIAS providers, as telecommunications carriers, a statutory right of nondiscriminatory access to utility poles and other essential infrastructure. Cable systems and telephone companies have long had this right."

Getting access to utility poles and other rights-of-way has been a key challenge for Google Fiber.

One city where it has come in trouble is Austin, Texas, where it is competing head-to-head with local incumbent telco AT&T. AT&T, which owns about 20 percent of the utility poles in Austin, said in December 2013 that it does not have to provide access to Google Fiber. However, Austin's City Council, which owns the remaining 80 percent, drafted an ordinance to make AT&T open up the poles.

Earlier, Google Fiber had to resolve a dispute with the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, the owner of the city's utility poles, over where exactly it would place its fiber cables along existing utility and telecom rights of way in that city.

When Google Fiber announced its proposal to target an additional 34 cities across nine metro areas with its 1 Gbps fiber to the home (FTTH) service in February, it said that it would conduct a detailed study of three local issues that could affect construction in each city: topography, shared infrastructure (i.e., existing utility poles and cabling conduit), and the permitting process.

Former FCC chairman Reed Hundt told The Wall Street Journal that leveraging existing poles to extend service to residents and business is nearly a tenth of the cost of having to dig underground trenches through streets and sidewalks.

"Pole access is fundamental and Google will never be able to make the case for Google Fiber without pole access," he said. "If Title II gives Google pole access, then it might really rock the world with broadband access."

The FCC has been an advocate of enhancing the ability for service providers to gain more affordable access to utility poles. In the Pole Attachments Order it issued in 2011, the FCC achieved two key goals: reducing the timeline for telecom providers to attach communications equipment (network electronics and fiber cable) to utility poles, while setting the rate for attachments by telecommunications companies at or near the rate paid by cable companies.

At the time it issued its Pole Attachments Order, the commission said that the "lack of reliable, timely, and affordable access to physical infrastructure—particularly utility poles—is often a significant barrier to deploying wireline services[,]" including broadband services that Google Fiber and other providers want to offer to consumers.

For more:
- WSJ has this article
- see this FCC filing (.pdf)

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