Correcting the Record: Utilities’ False Claims That Pole Issues Do Not Impede Broadband Deployment
As the federal government distributes historic sums of broadband grants aimed at closing the digital divide, state and federal leaders must now ensure these investments are maximized to deploy broadband connectivity to every corner of the country.
A recent Broadband Breakfast panel – joined by managing counsel at Crown Castle Van Bloys, executive director of Grange Advocacy at the National Grange Burton Eller, and general counsel at Utilities Technology Council (UTC) Brett Kilbourne – focused on a specific barrier standing in the way of efficient broadband deployment: pole access issues.
Unsurprisingly, UTC, which represents utility pole owners, made several false claims around pole attachments during the event – at one point even scoffing “we’re kind of miffed that all of a sudden it’s [pole access issues] being raised as a barrier for broadband.”
Here’s the reality: the excessive costs and needless delays that internet service providers (ISPs) often face when attaching their infrastructure to poles impede broadband deployment. This means broadband investments are squandered and unserved Americans must wait longer to receive connectivity.
Below, we correct a few of the most egregious claims made by UTC during the discussion.
THE CLAIM: “Pole attachments are not the barrier [to deployment] that folks are making it out to be. This is not a problem that’s preventing deployment to unserved areas.”
THE REALITY: To build out wireline broadband to unserved areas, ISPs need access to utility poles. Rural communities typically have only one set of utility poles, managed by one pole owner with the power to be a bottleneck monopoly. Providers looking to attach infrastructure must negotiate with this one pole owner for access to hundreds, if not thousands, of poles. For example, connecting a single home in a rural area can require attaching to more than 10 poles.
While some pole owners are reasonable partners, others abuse their position by delaying access to their poles or charging unreasonable fees to attach to poles or replace old poles. At best, pole owners attribute delays to the intensive process of reviewing poles on a case-by-case basis. At worst, pole owners may take actions to actively hinder competition, as they are entering, or exploring entering, the broadband market themselves. Regardless of the reason, delays are harmful and prevent communities from receiving the timely broadband access they need. Here are two clear examples:
- Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation (“WRECC”) in Kentucky attempted to limit the number of pole attachment applications it would accept to only 120 per month from any given internet provider. Under this timeline, it would have taken a provider up to 14 years to secure the pole access needed to bring connectivity to every customer in the areas it was trying to serve. Presumably, the electric co-op was at the same time rolling out its own broadband services and the delays they imposed on others would have ensured that they were first to market with broadband services.
- Southern Ohio Communications Services stated that pole access negotiations with utilities were taking “anywhere from 10 to 19, sometimes 20 months per pole,” significantly delaying deployment timelines.
THE CLAIMS: “How can you consider this [pole replacements] a barrier to broadband? It [attachers paying full cost of replacements] represents a really small fraction of the overall number of pole replacements out there.” “There isn’t a need for a regulatory intervention on [cost].” “If cost is really a barrier to broadband, why hasn’t anyone taken that ‘sweetheart deal’ ($1/pole in unserved areas) …We’ve had electric cooperatives offer free pole attachment access, still nobody has come. It’s not the barrier folks are making it out to be.”
THE REALITY: According to the Utility Partners of America, there are an estimated 160-180 million utility poles across the country, each with an average lifespan of 30-40 years. The fact is that 100% of these poles will need to be replaced at some point. The record of comments submitted into the FCC’s current pole proceeding strongly suggests that the cost of pole replacements to providers is significant, despite what utilities argue.
CTF has long documented numerous examples of ISPs facing excessive costs when building out broadband and attaching to poles – particularly in rural areas where providers must connect cables to upwards of 10-20 poles just to reach one house or small business. A few recent examples:
- A pole owner in New Mexico told a school district that before attaching about 23 miles of cable to poles, 189 of the 341 poles on the route would need to be replaced entirely at the school district’s expense. School officials decided to bury the cables underground instead.
- A large ISP reported that, on average, pole owners in deployment areas were requiring the ISP to pay for the replacement of roughly “one out of every six poles.”
- One broadband provider in Virginia reported that an electric cooperative changed its rates and under the new formula, the effective cost jumped from $30,000 per mile to approximately $95,000 per mile – making it more cost effective for the provider to build its own fiber.
THE CLAIM: “Utilities don’t benefit from pole replacements.”
THE REALITY: Utilities absolutely benefit when existing poles are replaced with newer, stronger ones, particularly when the new poles are paid for on the attachers’ dime. The utility keeps ownership of the new poles, which require less maintenance and are less susceptible to damage from increasingly extreme climate events. In addition, the utility receives tax benefits, capacity for additional attachers, the added income that provides, and often higher annual rent from existing pole attachers. Finally, utilities have new and improved poles – for free – that don’t have to be replaced for several decades.
Don’t just take our word for it though. UTC admits in its own 2022 FCC comment filing that “arguably utilities benefit from stronger [new, replaced] poles too.”
Broadband providers aren’t seeking free access to poles. Instead, they are simply asking to pay their fair share, which certainly is not the entire cost of an old pole when it needs to be replaced.
Common sense pole reforms are needed to complement historic broadband funds if we want to realize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve full connectivity. Both state and federal policymakers – including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which initiated a proceeding on pole access over three years ago – can and should take immediate action so we can successfully close the digital divide.