Post-Infrastructure Bill, Congress Must Focus on Utility Pole Access Reform

August 10, 2021

Senate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill is a significant step toward bridging our nation’s digital divide with its inclusion of a $65 billion investment in broadband. This investment will support broadband deployment in unserved areas of the country, help low-income families purchase broadband services, and increase digital literacy throughout the country. However, the current legislation still misses an opportunity to address a key impediment to broadband deployment – pole access reform.   Pole access reform will help maximize the impact of private and public investments in broadband infrastructure by making deployment more efficient and expeditious – a result that benefits consumers throughout the country, especially those who lack broadband access today.

Utility poles, which form the backbone of our nation’s communications infrastructure, are owned and managed by a wide variety of different public and private entities such as rural electric cooperatives and investor-owned utilities. This often leads to unnecessarily complex requirements and highly variable pricing for broadband deployment. These unreasonable demands lead to disputes that slow and shift resources away from deploying broadband, cutting overall broadband deployment by up to 55 percent.

During Senate debate of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Senators Blumenthal and Wicker demonstrated their understanding that directing the FCC to update its regulations to make pole attachments less costly – as well as to expedite resolution of pole attachment complaints when they arise – will result not only in faster and more efficient broadband deployment to the unserved areas of America, but in other benefits as well, such as providing for greater electric grid resiliency. Unfortunately, the amendment was not brought up for a vote.

Looking ahead, we urge Congress to take another look at utility pole reforms and join Senators Blumenthal and Wicker in their efforts to eliminate this barrier to broadband deployment. $65 billion will go a long way to helping bridge our country’s digital divide, but if Congress wants to ensure that these broadband funds are used most efficiently and effectively to bring connectivity to our rural friends and neighbors, it must now turn its attention to reforming outdated utility pole attachment rules.