FCC Approves Pole-Attachment Reforms

As expected, the FCC 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 (DAS) 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 voteon 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

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. "

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.