FCC Approves Pole-Attachment Reforms

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As expected, the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to adopt reforms to its pole-attachment rules in the interests of promoting broadband deployment.

Those included lowering rates utility pole owners can charge for telecom service (as much as $20 per foot per year) to about the same as the cable rate of about $7 per foot per year. The FCC also voted to boost wireless access to poles and to set a deadline for utility companies to allow attachments.

The change will mean cable companies won't have to pay more for their telecom offerings, either, which could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in savings.

The FCC also issued a notice of inquiry on easing rights of way and tower citing and what are current impediments including length of the permit process, again as a way to speed broadband deployment.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski called pole attachments the "blood and guts" of broadband deployment, one of several efforts to make the point that while it did not sound like a sexy issue, it was a critical one to the FCC's and administration's goal of promoting wired and wireless broadband.

By giving wireless companies access to the top of poles, for instance, Genachowski said it could spur billions of dollars in investment in new distributed antenna systems for better wireless broadband service.

The chairman said that currently, the pole-attachment process is so unpredictable and takes so long and costs so much that it discourages buildouts.

"Having determined that broadband is not being reasonably and timely deployed to all Americans [in its most recent broadband report], the Commission is required by Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act to 'take immediate action to accelerate deployment...by removing barriers to infrastructure investment," Genachowski said, adding that "our actions today, are central to carrying out that duty."

The FCC's latest 706 report, issued last summer, was the first time it had concluded that broadband was not being rolled out in a timely fashion and used that to help buttress the network neutrality rulemaking and other moves to advance its national broadband plan, including the pole attachment rule change and a separate vote Thursday to extend FCC voice roaming oversight to data roaming.

"CTIA applauds the Chairman and Commissioners for taking concrete steps to address key issues affecting wireless broadband infrastructure deployment," said the wireless association in a statement. "Regarding pole attachments, CTIA commends the FCC for affirming wireless providers' rights to attach to utility poles, including the tops of poles to enable greater signal coverage, and establishing timelines that should provide certainty to attachers and pole owners."

The FCC said its authority to regulate those rates came from its Communications Act authority to "ensure that rates, terms, and conditions for pole attachments by cable television systems and providers of telecommunications services are just and reasonable."

The notice of inquiry is to investigate rights-of-way and tower-citing issues, including "dispute mediation."

The votes on the items were unanimous unlike an earlier vote on data roaming that divided the commission over party lines and over whether the FCC was properly exercising its authority.

Not surprisingly, utility companies were not happy with the news. They had argued in comments that the FCC was shifting the cost from telecom companies to its ratepayers.

"The new rules reduce the already subsidized rates that carriers pay for pole attachments, and they impose additional access requirements that cut corners on safety," said the Utilities Telecom Council. "While the FCC claims that these rules will promote broadband deployment, as a practical matter they won't promote access for pole attachments into unserved areas and they won't necessarily reduce the rates that consumers pay for broadband services."

Genachowski warned at the Thursday meeting that he expected those rates would come down and the FCC might have to step in if that were not the case.

Saying that reforming the rates should reduce pole rental costs in rural areas by more than 50%, and be a spur to deployment in those areas, Genachowski said: "We expect these benefits to occur, and would be concerned - and would seriously consider modifying our approach to this issue - if we did not see evidence that these benefits were indeed occurring."

AT&T was not happy that the price breaks for pole attachments did not extend to the rates it pays as a "traditional phone company" subject to "monopoly-era agreements negotiated in the early to mid-20th century that are up to 14 times higher than their broadband competitors. "

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