Verizon, AT&T say current pole attachment rules are just fine, thank you very much

Telecommunications companies have surprisingly strong opinions about pole attachments. Several groups filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) advocating for a more streamlined process related to pole attachments. But AT&T and Verizon, to the contrary, filed comments indicating they don’t want any changes.

The FCC is interested in clarifying the process and costs for those seeking to attach telecommunications equipment to utility poles. It issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in March and has since been seeking stakeholder comments.

Yesterday, INCOMPAS, an association that represents fiber builders, filed comments that were reflective of the views of many companies.

“While it may sound like an under-the-radar issue, pole attachment policy may ultimately determine the speed, success or failure of the nation’s historic bipartisan broadband infrastructure investment,” said Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, in a statement.

As part of its comments, INCOMPAS provided a list of examples from states including Kansas, Maine and Texas, where smaller broadband providers have been blocked or seriously delayed by pole-related challenges.

It said red-tape, costs and other barriers from utility pole owners “fundamentally restrict providers from reaching the most hard-to-reach, most unserved customers by frustrating an already challenging economic model in such areas.”
INCOMPAS is asking the FCC to provide a transparent and reasonable process that ensures a fair allocation of replacement costs between pole owners and new attachers.

Quite contrary – Verizon, AT&T

But Verizon and AT&T have completely different opinions about the issue.

Verizon’s filing yesterday said the current pole attachment rules correctly allocate costs and provide the clarity and predictability needed to reduce disputes and promote deployment.

“The pole-replacement cost-shifting proposals discussed in the Second Further NPRM would not advance the Commission’s goal of easing pole access to help advance broadband deployment,” wrote Verizon. “Instead, the proposals would increase costs for communications providers and create costly and unnecessary disputes that would delay deployment. The Commission should not adopt the proposals discussed in the Second Further NPRM.”

Verizon’s filing indicates that it is concerned any changes might negatively affect it as an “existing attacher.”

Current rules do not put any cost burden on existing attachers, but new rules might require existing attachers to bear some costs to rearrange equipment as a result of an additional attachment.

AT&T filed similar comments, indicating that it didn't think changes were necessary. But AT&T's comments also had more of a suggestion that it doesn’t want to help new broadband entrants.

“Attachers should bear their own costs of market entry, just like every other attacher has had to do,” wrote AT&T. It said if a proposed attachment requires a stronger pole, the new attacher should be responsible for covering those costs, just as existing operators had to do.

NCTA – The Internet and Television Association, in its comments, recommends a compromise. It thinks pole attachment rules should be updated to help streamline the process. But it addresses the concerns of existing attachers.

It suggests that the cost “of modifying a facility” should be borne by all parties that directly benefit from the modification, including the utility. But a preexisting attacher should not bear any costs if it receives no benefit from an additional attachment.


For its part, Charter filed comments saying that as it has expanded its network into unserved areas in recent years, it has increasingly encountered demands from pole owners that Charter pay, as a condition of attachment, the full cost to replace significant numbers of existing utility poles. “Such pole replacement charges are substantial drivers of rural broadband deployment costs, and they frequently delay projects that then must be rerouted or redesigned,” wrote Charter.

Charter was a big winner of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, and the company has a vested interest in streamlining pole attachment costs, especially in rural areas.

Charter wants the FCC to require pole owners to share in the costs of new poles they purchase to accommodate attachments.

The utilities’ point of view

We mustn't forget about the perspective of the utilities that actually own the poles in question.

The Coalition of Concerned Utilities filed comments this week, saying, “We will work with the telecommunications sector to bridge the digital divide to the maximum extent possible without negatively impacting electric system safety and reliability, electric rate affordability and equity.”

But then it went on to say, “Communications company pole attachments do not benefit electric utilities. Dozens of electric utility work functions can be performed more efficiently and at lower cost to electric customers if communications company pole attachments were not present.”

It said electric utilities have voluntarily replaced poles to help communications companies expand broadband, despite the fact that many of these poles wouldn’t need to be replaced if it weren’t for the weight, height and other demands of the telecom equipment. And it said these replacements are time consuming and expensive and take resources away from priorities of more interest to electric utilities – such as grid improvements.