It always perplexes me at a time when solving rural broadband is a top priority that governments still create policies that are huge barriers to fiber construction. I’ve written about a number of such stories over the years.
One of the most perplexing was a county government in Michigan that insisted that a municipal fiber project be built in the deep woods. The pole lines and the county rights-of-way that followed them are now twenty feet into the woods due to sixty years of unchecked forest growth. The county insisted that new fiber be built in the woods in the rights-of-way even though the incumbent telephone company had buried cables in drainage ditches along the side of the road. The bureaucrats at the county wouldn’t budge on the issue and consequently added a lot of unneeded cost to a fiber construction project.
The newest story comes from the State Department of Transportation in New York. The agency has a permitting process that is adding tons of costs to fiber projects – including fiber projects that were funded by State broadband grants. The NYDOT requires an expensive process to get onto a pole located in State rights-of-way. A fiber builder must first request an official copy of the State’s existing mapping for each pole through the FOIL process – New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The process can be slow. For example, if the State intends to charge a fee for the record, the State must write to the ISP to inform it of the fee before proceeding.
Once an ISP has the official documents related to a given pole, it must apply for a permit to use the pole through the PERM75 permitting process. That process requires the fiber overbuilder to survey both the pole and the buried environment under the pole and get that assessment stamped by a professional engineer. This must be done for every pole.
This process adds a lot of time and expense to the permitting process. We know this process is completely unnecessary because nobody else in the country puts ISPs through these steps. In most places, an ISP can turn in bulk requests for a hundred or more poles at a time, all without the need for a professional engineer. Pole attachment work is mostly done by experienced technicians that understand poles because of years of experience – it’s overkill to require a professional engineer to describe if there is room on a pole for a new wire.
It’s hard to understand the state’s reasoning behind this. This new policy was only recently implemented in November 2020, during the height of the pandemic, when it was already clear that the Federal and State governments were going to fund broadband construction to tackle the digital divide. What would make an agency create such a preposterous policy at the same time when the State is pouring money into rural broadband projects?
My guess is that NYDOT is forcing the ISPs to update the state’s poor records on poles and rights-of-ways. That’s something that should instead be required of the pole owners and not of somebody that wants to add fiber to an existing pole that might have been there for sixty years. Requiring a professional engineer to stamp an inventory of each pole is a ridiculous administrative burden that adds costs to a project and ties up engineers at a time when there is a shortage of technical experts across the industry. In my experience, most dumb policies like this come from bureaucrats who are flexing their administrative muscles just because they can.
We hear a lot of crying from the big ISPs yelling about federal overreach with regulations – at a time when the FCC barely regulates broadband at all. But I doubt that many are screaming about this policy because it benefits the big ISPs by making it harder for competitors to build. There is proposed legislation to end the PERM75 practice, but it’s been sitting in committee since July 2021. But this shouldn’t need legislation – this kind of policy should never have been created.