ILECS, utilities take on the world in FCC pole attachment debate

AT&T, Verizon and Lumen Technologies lined up alongside utility providers in arguing against changes to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) pole attachment regulations, pitting the unlikely partners against cable and fiber providers alike.

The FCC opened a review of its pole attachment rules in March, asking industry interests to weigh in on whether it should clarify the process for and regulate the cost of securing pole attachment rights. An initial round of comments filed before a June deadline saw AT&T and Verizon argue against changes while fiber builders represented by INCOMPAS and cable company Charter Communications backed them.

With an August 26 reply comment deadline now in the rearview, the battle lines are even more clearly drawn. And it looks like the fight is ILECS and utilities versus the world.

At the heart of the current FCC debate are proposed reforms which would force pole owners to share the cost of replacing poles with attachers, rather than leaving the latter to shoulder the entire cost burden.

In the latest round of comments, the likes of Charter, Altice USA, T-Mobile, Crown Castle, NCTA – the Internet and Television Association and ACA Connects pressed for the implementation of new cost-sharing regulations on the grounds that pole owners benefit when attachers pay to have poles replaced.

NCTA in particular claimed the need for reform is “urgent,” arguing comments submitted in the proceeding demonstrate “the current system for allocating the costs of replacing poles is unfair and interferes with the deployment of broadband to consumers, particularly in unserved and underserved areas.”

It continued: “Examples of projects cancelled, delayed, or rerouted to avoid the costs of pole replacements abound—as does the evidence that the effect has been to delay and increase the cost of broadband deployment. Pole owners deny the problem exists, but those denials ring hollow.”

However, AT&T and Verizon – this time joined by Lumen – pushed back, arguing in favor of the FCC preserving its existing regulations. Several utilities and utility groups, as well as the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, also objected to changes.

As Lumen put it, “The attachers’ proposals would offload substantial portions of attachers’ deployment costs on other parties, including their direct competitors, merely serving to increase the profitability of the attachers’ government-subsidized services.”

The Utilities Technology Council also hit back at claims that pole replacement costs could slow broadband deployments. “Moreover, pole replacements represent a small percentage of pole attachment requests overall, such that pole replacements does not represent a significant barrier to broadband deployment,” it wrote.


So why, exactly, have AT&T, Verizon and Lumen sided with utilities rather than other broadband providers? Well, it comes down to who owns the poles.

Recon Analytics’ Roger Entner explained the poles in question are telephone poles owned by a utility or ILEC which are used for aerial deployments of broadband infrastructure. He noted that because there is currently a lot more cable than fiber, poles are currently used more by cable providers, though the poles were also used for legacy copper deployments as well.

But pole attachments are likely to be increasingly important going forward. Companies like Brightspeed and TDS Telecom have highlighted plans to use aerial deployments for their fiber rollouts while Charter and Windstream noted their Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) builds will rely heavily on the use of aerial infrastructure.

“One of the bones of contention is how much weight and power can or should be attached to the utility poles. Aerial deployment is the lowest cost deployment available. The more weight and power the more expensive the poles or they might break,” Entner said.

Thus, "a natural tension appears as the pole owners want to have fewer companies on the poles for more money and the companies who want to use the poles want low cost and ready access,” he concluded.

The comment period for the FCC’s review is now closed. However, the regulator has not indicated when it might take action on the matter.