INDIANAPOLIS – Rising pole attachment fees and delays in obtaining necessary permits from municipalities are the biggest roadblocks in building out broadband infrastructure in rural America, a panel of experts said at The Independent Show Monday (July 24).
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ShenTel EVP and chief operating officer Earle MacKenzie said for the small market telecom company, simply obtaining permission to string its lines on a utility pole and obtaining a reasonable rate can delay projects for months.
“It’s a different story with each pole owner,” MacKenzie said at the panel session, moderated by Kelly, Drey & Warren LLP partner Tom Cohen. One of the major issues is getting a good estimate upfront and getting detailed billing so we know what we’re paying for.”
He added that last year, ShenTel had 60 construction projects that were delayed an average of 60 days because of pole attachment issues.
While obtaining permits and getting local government approvals can be a hassle, Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke, who has overseen the construction of one of the most extensive municipal broadband networks in the country, said they are necessary.
“We really care about aesthetics,” Berke said, adding that making sure the city gets a fair price and engages with its contractors to make sure the process goes smoothly. “We don’t want 25 people digging up streets. We want to dig once.”
But he added that cities want to be fair to contractors, while keeping their priorities straight.
“Part of the challenge for us is to set up a regulatory scheme and a payment scheme that is fair to the city and constituents and to allow the economic development to put people to work,” Berke said
McKenzie added that Chattanooga can be the exception. Many municipalities, he added, have no clue what they want or how to get it. He pointed to a project in the city of Roanoke, Va., where the telco was delayed in getting the proper permits to run fiber to local schools.
“If we are serious about getting service to everyone, we need to take down the roadblocks,” MacKenzie said. “The last thing we want to do is irritate our customers. We really are in business to make money and make our customers happy. If we have to scratch a different itch in every town, it gets expensive and in some cases it’s not worth going forward.”
Berke suggested that contractors and providers make sure they take into account where local governments stand when they are proposing to build a network to ensure a smoother process.
“If you’re going to a city that doesn’t have clear rules, make sure you’re talking the language of the people running city government,” Berke said.
The Federal Communications Commission, which has in the past kept pole attachments disputes at arm’s length, opting instead to let the market find a solution, has been considering getting more involved, said FCC Wireline Competition Bureau deputy bureau chief Madeleine Findley. FCC chairman Ajit Pai created the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee earlier this year to specifically address these issues. Findley said the BDAC docket is still open and encouraged operators to offer questions and comments about issues including timelines, rates and fees, best practices and ways to encourage more efficient deployment.
“The chairman is very concerned about closing the digital divide,” Findley said, adding later that the commission is aware that there is no simple solution for the problem.
“The commission is cognizant that this is not an area where one size fits all,” she said. “There are different issues. We want to be available as a resource.”
Findley said the commission is considering whether to impose a 180-day shot clock on itself for such issues to help speed up the process.
“This is not a once and done thing for the commission,” Findley said. “It’s going to be an iterative conversation. We want to be a participant in that conversation.”