Google Fiber battles AT&T, Comcast for utility pole access in Silicon Valley

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Google Fiber (NASDAQ: GOOG) is facing yet another battle over utility pole access in California's desirable Silicon Valley with AT&T (NYSE: T) and Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), who say that the service provider has no right to access those facilities.

Although placing fiber underground is an option, it comes with a few catches: it causes disruption for local residents and businesses and it is expensive. 

Google has been pleading its case with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to get access to the state's public and privately-owned utility poles.

Not surprisingly, AT&T and the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, a local cable association that represents Comcast and Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), told the CPUC that Google Fiber shouldn't have access to the poles.

Google Fiber said that a group of companies that control the majority of the utility poles in California's Bay Area has put up roadblocks for the service provider get access to the poles.

This has been a large barrier for Google Fiber to place a stake in the California market.

The only California market where Google has made a commitment to deliver its 1 Gbps service is San Francisco. In order to overcome the pole access issue in San Francisco, the service provider said it will leverage existing fiber to roll out its Internet service to "some apartments, condos and affordable housing properties." 

According to a San Jose Mercury News report, Google Fiber is working on a plan to install its own fiber on utility poles in Palo Alto and Santa Clara, but has yet to secure agreements in neighboring cities such as San Jose, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.

"Gaining access in a timely manner bears on Google Fiber's decisions whether to build new networks," said Austin Schlick, an attorney representing Google Fiber in a Feb. 5 letter to the CPUC.

Schlick added that the Northern California Joint Pole Association has denied Google Fiber membership, which is required to get access to the poles it oversees. AT&T and Comcast, which are both expanding their gigabit services in California and other states, are two of the pole association's members.

Interestingly, Google Fiber has not heeded the call of a number of other cities such as Oakland, Walnut Creek and Concord, Calif., which called on the service provider to make them service targets.

At issue for cable operators and AT&T is whether or not Google Fiber can be classified as a cable operator. Google Fiber sells a standalone 1 Gbps FTTH broadband data service as well as TV service.

"Cable television corporations provide video programming to subscribers for a fee over wire. Google is providing video to subscribers for a fee over wires. Therefore, Google is operating as a cable television corporation," said Constance Gordon, a spokeswoman for the CPUC.

However, the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents large cable MSOs including Comcast and Time Warner Cable, says the commission's view of Google Fiber's status is incorrect.

"While the CPUC has looked at the definition of a cable television corporation under state law, it did not consider whether Google Fiber complies with the federal Cable Act -- it does not," cable association President Carolyn McIntyre said in a March 3 email to the PUC.

California is just one of several markets where Google Fiber has faced issues with getting access to a community's utility poles.

In Louisville, Ky., Google Fiber's efforts to wire the city with FTTH services has been held up by a lawsuit filed by AT&T against the city. Officials there recently proposed an ordinance that would give other competitive ISPs like Google Fiber a way to more readily access the city's rights-of-way along utility poles that are mainly owned by AT&T or Louisville Gas & Electric.

The incumbent telco argues that Louisville does not have the right to dictate how its utility poles can be used, reflecting a move to thwart Google Fiber from bringing its service to the city.

Interestingly, less than a week after filing its lawsuit, AT&T revealed plans to deliver its 1 Gbps FTTH service to parts of Louisville. Similar to AT&T's rollout plan in other markets, the initial build will focus in this case on two of the city's East End subdivisions.

For more:
- San Jose Mercury News has this article

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