FCC to accelerate broadband builds by creating parity for cable, telecom pole attachment rates

The FCC recently granted a joint petition made by members of the cable and telecom industry that would harmonize the attachment rate cost model for pole attachments, which would be at or near the cable rate formula level, providing a level of certainty for service providers.

Pole attachment rates have been a thorny issue between service providers and electric utility companies, who own the poles service providers use to build out broadband networks.

While the FCC's 2011 pole attachment order recognized that there was a disparity in the rate formulas used for cable and telcos could have "negative implications for competition and broadband deployment," a joint filing from INCOMPAS (formerly COMPTEL), NCTA and Level 3 (then TW Telecom) said the FCC needed to make further clarifications.

In a joint filing in 2011, the group asked that the FCC clarify that 66 percent and 44 percent are "illustrations" of the new rule, or to revise the rules to "provide corresponding cost adjustments to other entity counts."

The FCC's 2011 pole attachment order was focused on addressing four key issues: improving efficiency, reducing potentially excessive costs of network deployment and accelerating broadband buildout, while eliminating the wide disparity between the telecom and cable rate formulas.

Pole attachment rate costs are also a major issue for other telcos like Frontier, whose footprint consists of a number of rural areas. At that time, Frontier said that the amount of money they have to pay to power companies to get necessary rights-of-way to access utility poles is one of the largest costs that it and other broadband providers incur in expanding their networks to more homes and businesses.

Frontier wrote in its reply comments to the joint petition that pole attachment "costs are particularly dramatic in the rural areas that Frontier serves, where Frontier must obtain rights to many more additional poles to serve customers spread out over a greater geographic area."

However, the regulator admitted that the goals of the order were not fully met.

"The 2011 revisions sought to bring the telecom and cable rates into parity. In the intervening time, we have seen that our revisions did not fully achieve that objective," the FCC said. "Today, we take the next logical step in achieving the goals set forth in 2011."

If cable operators were forced to pay a higher pole attachment rate for providing a similar broadband product that a telco would deliver, the expense could hamper further broadband expansion, for example.

"Subjecting cable operators to higher pole attachment rates merely because they also provide telecommunications services, such as broadband Internet access, could deter investment in states subject to Commission pole regulation, which would undermine the Commission's broadband deployment policy," the FCC said. "By keeping pole attachment rates unified and low, we further our overarching goal to accelerate deployment of broadband by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and promoting competition."

Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, said in a statement that the FCC's move to grant the joint request for pole access pricing parity will help foster further consumer and business service broadband competition.

"The FCC's decision to essentially grant the joint request by telecommunication carriers and cable operators to ensure unified and reasonable pole attachment rates is a win for consumers and business customers looking to connect with future networks," said INCOMPAS' CEO in a statement.

NTCA agreed with INCOMPAS' sentiment.

"We appreciate the Commission's decision to grant our petition and ensure that all telecommunications carriers and cable operators can attach facilities to utility poles at reasonable rates," NCTA said in a statement. "While much has changed in the four years since the petition was filed [in 2011], reasonable pole attachment rates continue to be a critical factor in promoting broadband deployment."

Joining the FCC in driving parity for pole attachment pricing is the House Communications Subcommittee, which has scheduled a vote on Dec. 2 on a legislative package and Federal Spectrum Incentive Act to accelerate broadband deployment.

Part of their proposal includes a provision go expanding broadband providers' access to pole attachments.

Other groups like FTTH Council Americas have advocated for a more streamlined process to get access to poles. Today, service providers have to wade through a complex method known as make-ready process when they want access to a pole. Under this construct, a service provider negotiates access to a pole typically with the local utility company or municipality and waits to get permission to run fiber along the poles.

The group has proposed the idea that government agencies should adopt 'one touch' make-ready policies for utility poles, which would allow a single construction crew to complete all the work necessary to make a pole ready for the attachment of new optical or wireless equipment.

For more:
- see the FCC ruling (PDF)

Related articles:
FTTH Council: Streamlined pole attachment processes will accelerate broadband installation
Frontier says pole attachment prices are dramatically high in rural areas
Level 3, COMPTEL ask FCC to rework utility pole attachment rules
NCTA to FCC: Google can already attach to utility poles without Title II