Utility Poles Create Unexpected Barriers to Broadband Deployment

By: Katie McAuliffe

The past year saw consumer demand for broadband access at an all-time high. Broadband providers have also been itching to continue investing enormous levels of capital to expand service to new and underserved areas. Despite having the supply and the demand, there has been one stubborn obstacle preventing the expansion of broadband to millions of Americans: pole attachment fees.

The utility pole is an icon of infrastructure. Conservative estimates say there are at least 150 million utility poles spanning the nation; connecting Americans with electricity, telephone, cable tv, and internet service. This almost ubiquitous network offers potential to seriously decrease the number of Americans without broadband; particularly in rural areas where they are they already serve as a host for many utilities.

Unfortunately, broadband deployment along utility poles has been severely hindered by utility companies, municipalities, and cooperatives who are incentivized to charge exorbitant costs towards broadband providers who seek to use their poles.

Rather than paying their own part of the pole replacement, utility companies demand that broadband companies cover the entire cost of replacing their aging utility poles. Never mind that the broadband company doesn’t own the pole or that often the pole was set to be replaced anyway.

While it’s only fair that broadband providers pay their share for utilizing the pole, it’s not fair to push the entire cost of replacing the pole onto them. This would normally turn a $100­ or $200 dollar process into what could be $3,800 dollars a 3,500% increase in the cost of broadband expansion.

The costs to access utility poles can be as much as one-third of the entire costs to rural broadband providers. This is a huge misdirection of capital that halts the deployment broadband at the expense of millions of Americans who remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.

These expenses also waste congressional efforts and taxpayer dollars by making it harder for broadband companies to reach rural areas in two main ways. First, it leads to wrangling between the utility company and the broadband company, all of which delays getting high-speed internet to rural areas. Second, it skims finite resources provided by taxpayers that were intended for broadband, which means that fewer rural families ultimately get connected. The whole process can add 35% or more to the cost of a rural broadband project.

This is an easy-fix issue, but the pole attachment problem has gone long unaddressed by the FCC.

Specifically, Members of Congress can call on the FCC to take up the July petition from the Internet and Television Association, which urged the agency to clarify the rules on cost sharing. At least three representatives – Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, Rep. Darin LaHood, and Rep. Anna Eshoo – have already asked the FCC to weigh in on this issue. More should follow suit with their common-sense approach to connecting rural America. This issue affects Americans in every state, so every lawmaker has a responsibility to act.

Congress has already approved huge sums of money for deployment of broadband, they should take the easy steps to make sure that this money gets used more efficiently.

Photo Credit: Michelle Ress