Utility to Jack Up Pole Rates in Fla.

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The recent appeals-court decision on pole-attachment policy is already having an impact.

One Florida utility has already told Comcast Corp., for example, that rates will soar 700 percent when contracts are renewed.

Cable representatives said the action is premature, and lobbyists have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to rehear arguments on the case, which was decided in April.

The financial stakes are so high that the issue will probably go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gulf Power of Pensacola, Fla., opted not to wait for further rulings.

A total of 18 Southern power companies had challenged the constitutionality of pole-attachment provisions that guarantee cable companies access to utility poles at rates set by the Federal Communications Commission.

The utilities argued, successfully, that rate regulation should apply only to cable plant and not to the "dark fiber" cable operators use to deliver Internet access or other nonvideo services. The decision affects policies in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Gulf Power's cable pole users pay $5 to $6 per year, per pole. But as colocation contracts expire, the dark-fiber rate is going up to $38 per year, per pole, which the utility said is with what telephony users pay. Gulf Power serves 365,000 homes in 10 counties in the Florida panhandle.

"We think that's a fair deal for their customers and for ours," utility spokesman John Hutchinson said. Each pole costs $468 in lumber alone, and the power company has maintenance costs and other related expenses.

A Comcast spokeswoman called Gulf Power's proposal "extremely detrimental," as the MSO is building an Internet-access business. Also, since the 11th Circuit ruling is subject to challenge, Gulf Power's plan is "all the more inappropriate."

Hutchinson predicted other utilities would act similarly. "I don't know if we're the first, but you'll see it elsewhere," he added.

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