Rural Broadband Champions Support Quick FCC Action on Utility Poles at CTF Webinar Event

December 9, 2022

Billions of dollars in federal funding are now available to deliver connectivity to the millions of Americans who continue to lack access to reliable, high-speed internet. Policymakers must now ensure that the correct policies are in place to allow for the cost efficient and timely deployment of broadband so that unserved families, small businesses, and anchor institutions receive the internet access they need.

Connect the Future’s (CTF) Zachary Cikanek hosted and moderated a recent webinar event – with former Iowa Lt. Governor Patty Judge, Western Carolina University Professor Edward J. Lopez, the International Center for Law and Economics’ (ICLE) Kristian Stout, and Multicultural Media Telecom and Internet Council’s (MMTC) President and CEO, Robert Branson – to discuss the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) current proceeding to clarify utility poles access and replacement rules and ensure pole attachment disputes are handled quickly and fairly.

Here are three key takeaways from the webinar:

1. Too many rural Americans still lack broadband access – and pole access issues are oftentimes the culprit.

Former Iowa Lt. Governor Patty Judge emphasized the urgent need to bring connectivity to rural communities – including those across her home state – without any further delay: “It is important to remember that rural America is continuing to fall behind. We simply cannot compete any longer without access to high-speed internet.”

MMTC President and CEO Robert Branson singled out pole access as playing a particularly crucial role in allowing broadband providers to expand access to connectivity: “We’ve been very concerned with the pole attachment issue – you want to rely on existing infrastructure [to deploy broadband], but you need to have reasonable rates and access to do so.” Branson added that too often, pole attachers are forced by pole owners to absorb the entire cost of a needed pole replacement, even when the pole owner derives significant benefit from that new pole.

In rural areas, internet service providers (ISPs) can spend upwards of a third of total broadband buildout costs on just pole replacements or pole disputes, noted ICLE’s Kristian Stout. That’s because buildout projects in rural areas require attaching broadband infrastructure to a greater volume of poles – often 10 poles or more – just to connect one home or small business.

2. There is a significant economic incentive to reform pole access rules.

As Professor Edward Lopez mentioned, there are significant economic incentives to reforming pole access rules. He estimates that every month of delayed expansion due to existing pole attachment rules and problematic pole owner practices costs Americans between $491 million and $1.86 billion in lost economic gains. That accounts for more than $22 billion in lost economic gains each year.

3. It is important for the FCC to take prompt action to clarify pole access, including its rules regarding the allocation of costs between pole owners and attachers, because states and localities regularly turn to FCC rules as a model for their own laws.

The panelists agreed that, with the FCC’s current proceeding on pole access, the Commission has the unique opportunity to play a significant role in speeding the deployment of broadband to unserved Americans. Action by the FCC must include a clarification of how pole attachment costs (e.g., pole replacement) should be allocated between pole owners and attachers, as well as timely processing of pole attachment applications and expedited processing of pole attachment complaints at the FCC.

CTF’s Zach Cikanek noted: “It’s important to recognize how FCC rules impact decisions across states,” flagging that while there are certainly limitations to the Commission’s authority over specific types of pole owners, states and localities often turn to Commission rules to guide their own rulemaking and laws.

Kristian Stout concurred: “The FCC is a thought leader in states where their rules don’t apply.”

Unserved rural communities across America are counting on the FCC to ensure a faster, fairer process for utility pole access, replacements, and dispute resolution for broadband infrastructure. Only then will historic investments in broadband buildout be successful in achieving full connectivity across our country.