FCC Votes to Clarify Nondiscriminatory Access to Utility Poles For Cable, Telcos

The FCC Thursday (May 20) voted to clarify what it means for cable and telcos to have nondiscriminatory access to utility poles, though it left the heavy lifing on setting and lowering rates and timelines (shot clock) for a further rulemaking proposal.

The commission's goal is to set pole-attachment rental rates "as low and close to uniform as possible," said Wireline Competition Bureau attorney advisor Wes Platt, while speeding the process of attaching to those poles. Both are seen as a way to stimulate broadband deployment and competition. The FCC made pole attachment reform a part of the national broadband plan and one of its first action items.

The FCC voted to launch the pole attachment reform process and several other broadband plan-related items at its monthly public meeting Thursday.

Nondiscriminatory access, said the commission, means that "communications providers have the statutory right to use space-and cost-saving techniques where practical and where consistent with the individual pole-owners use of those techniques," and that to be just and reasonable, access must also be timely.

Left for a further rulemaking was additioanal proposals on what the new uniform rental rate should be, but a staffer said after the meeting that the new proposed timeline for responding to wired pole attachment requests, including fiber and other wireless carrier attacments, would be based on a New York state shot clock of between 105 and 149 days.

The FCC will also propose allowing use of contract workers in some circumstances and reforms to its access-dispute resolution. The commission last fall took steps to speed the resolution of tower citing disputes for wireless service.

The FCC's reforms will not apply to states that already regulate their pole attachment rates (there are 20, said a Wireline Bureau staffer), or utilities that are municipally or cooperatively owned.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that resolving rights-of-way issues including pole attachments, ducts, tower citing (wireless) and one-dig initiatives, the faster and deeper it can achieve broadband deployment. "We must insure that the process for deploying infrastructure is as efficient and streamlined as possible," he said.

"We strongly support the commission for moving forward on the recommendations in the National Broadband Plan to ensure reasonable and timely access to utility poles," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow. "Establishing a low uniform rate will lower the cost of broadband deployment and enable more Americans to be connected to this vital service. We look forward to working with the commission to quickly adopt new rules that will achieve these key national objectives.”

"The American Cable Association applauds the Federal Communications Commission for responding to small cable operators by adopting rules that will simultaneously speed access to utility poles and help expedite the rollout of broadband facilities in rural America," said American Cable Association President Matt Polka in a statement. "ACA hopes Congress will follow suit by passing legislation, as recommended by the commission in its National Broadband Plan, that would eliminate municipalities and electric co-operatives’ exemption under the Pole Attachment Act of 1978 that allows them to charge excessive fees to rural broadband providers."

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.