CWA: FCC should reject one-touch make-ready pole attachment proposals that obstruct safe processes

CWA claimed that the one-touch make-ready process does not provide enough time for the pole owner’s technicians to make necessary assessments.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) union is making its voice heard in the FCC’s review of pole attachment processes, telling the regulator that it should not accept one-touch, make-ready (OTMR) proposals that could create unsafe environments and violate existing labor contracts.

In the FCC’s NPRM that was issued in March, the regulator asked for comments on how it can reform the commission’s current pole attachment rules to make it easier, faster, and less costly to access the poles, ducts, conduits and rights ofway necessary for building out next-generation networks.

One of the concerns CWA cited is that the one-touch, make-ready proposals championed by Google Fiber could result in third-parties and contractors not taking responsibility for shoddy or unsafe work.

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According to anecdotes collected by CWA workers, there have been reports of attachers leaving ungrounded strands, creating an electrocution risk to the public and other workers.

Additionally, other CWA workers reported third party contractors using weak bolts to secure heavy cables. A weak bolt could come loose over time and the cable could fall, possibly into a public right of way.

“Unlike a contractor employed directly by the existing attacher, a third party or its contractor cannot be docked fees until the work is done right or lose 5 future contracts as a result of substandard or unsafe work,” CWA said in its filing (PDF). "In the end, it is the existing attachers who often fix the shoddy work of third parties to ensure their own customers’ quality service, workers’ safety, and public safety.”

Differing timelines

At the heart of the debate between the CWA, AT&T and new service provider entrants like Google Fiber on OTMR is the time it takes to get approvals to attach new facilities on existing poles.

CWA claims that the OTMR process does not provide enough time for the pole owner’s technicians to make necessary assessments.

“The Commission should maintain its current timeframes governing pole attachments or, in the alternative, ensure that any changes in the timelines are sufficient to complete all aspects of the work (survey, cost estimate, make-ready, and inspection) safely and accurately,” CWA wrote in the filing.

The union cited new OTMR ordinances in Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, that don’t require the new attacher to submit a pole attachment application.

Under Louisville’s ordinance, the new attacher is not required to notify existing attachers before “routine” work of removing, altering or relocating existing attachers’ facilities is done. Over in Nashville, Tennessee, the ordinance only requires a 15-day notice that a “utility-approved contractor” will be doing make-ready work and gives existing attachers only 30 days to complete “complex work” before giving the new attacher the right to do the work itself or with its own contractors.

CWA stressed that pole owners need to be able to conduct a review of each pole before a new entrant puts up new facilities.

“A CWA-represented engineering associate who surveys poles notes that, while shortening the application review timeframe for wireline work to 15-30 days for small or medium orders and 45 days for large orders might theoretically be possible under ideal conditions, the reality of on-the-ground work makes the shortened timeframe unrealistic,” CWA wrote.

Not everyone agrees with CWA’s assessment

Google Fiber said that before the OTMR ordinance, the traditional method to install fiber along existing utility poles would be accelerated if the internet giant could hire its own contractor to move lines to make room for its fiber. Under the earlier law, new entrants like Google Fiber had to wait months for existing providers like AT&T and Comcast to move their lines themselves.

After the OTMR ordinance passed, AT&T sued Nashville, kicking off a new wave of debate on how to open up the city’s broadband market to new competitors.

AT&T said in its suit (PDF) that the Nashville city council is overstepping its boundaries in enacting a reformed pole attachment process, adding that only the FCC can regulate privately owned utility poles.

Interestingly, Verizon has also expressed support for OTMR as a way to spur broadband expansion.

“The Commission should allow all new attachers, as well as pole owners, the option to use one-touch make-ready to secure faster access to utility poles by assuming more responsibility during the pole attachment process,” Verizon said in an FCC filing (PDF). “Attachers who do so will have greater control over the pole attachment process, while burdens on existing attachers and pole owners would be significantly reduced.”

However, Verizon told the FCC that any new attacher that wants to use the one-touch-make-ready process would select a contractor approved by the pole owner to perform a survey, make-ready estimate and make-ready work.

“The approved contractor should meet several reasonable qualifications to minimize any risks to existing attachers or the public,” Verizon said.

Union agreements

Besides posing potential safety risks to the public, CWA said that the OTMR proposals could violate collective bargaining agreements that give priority over make-ready work to CWA-represented employees.

CWA pointed to an agreement dating back to 1974 that said “the Company believes that pole and aerial cable work normally should be performed by Company employees.”

“Allowing third-parties or their contractors to do make-ready work violates the legally binding contracts negotiated between CWA and our employers, and undermines good, career jobs in communities across the United States,” CWA said. “The Commission must not adopt make ready rules that infringe on collective bargaining agreements, and by extension violate the rights of the workers who bargained them.”

CWA has a supporter in AT&T which employs union workers to conduct pole attachment activities.

During the process of reviewing OTMR ordinance in Nashville, Tennessee, AT&T said it could interfere with its Communications Workers of America (CWA) workforce that has traditionally conducted make-ready work for the telco.

Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee, told FierceTelecom in a previous interview that one of the elements of its union agreement “is we have promised to not allow contractors to move our facilities.”