Casey Lide and Thomas B. Magee of Keller & Heckman highlight an issue that anybody building fiber on utility poles should be aware of. A recent article on their website notes that in some cases, an easement obtained for using private land to bring electric service might not automatically allow an easement for bringing fiber.
There is a subtle difference between easements and rights-of-of way. An easement allows somebody to carry out an activity on private land. It was typical when electric companies built the power grid to seek an easement from each landowner to give permission to erect electric poles for bringing electric service. Rights-of-way are generally more specific and wider in scope. A city will often decree that it has a right-of-way in perpetuity to use the first few feet from the street of each property for civic purposes. The city can then use the right-of-way to allow for underground utilities or to place a fire hydrant.
The article warns that the original language of the easement might restrict usage for adding fiber. If the original easement language was narrow and only talked about bringing electric service, then somebody adding fiber would need to seek a new easement for every property underneath a pole line. If the original easement was more generic in nature, it might have allowed for electric and other services, in which case the electric company would have an easement to cover allowing others on its poles.
There are cases where a property owner has refused to allow fiber or other wires to be added to a pole line. In such cases, the new attacher has to get permission from the property owner and possibly pay for the easement when property owners insist there is a value for the easement.
The legislatures in twenty states have dealt with this issue in the last few years by passing legislation that says that the original easement given to the electric company covers other wires added to the poles. Within just the last three years, the following states have enacted this legislative fix as a way to make it easier to build broadband networks. Note that some of these laws are aimed only at electric cooperatives but not for commercial electric companies. The states are Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.
If your state is not on that list, or if you are building fiber on the lines of a for-profit utility, then this is an issue that you should investigate as part of building fiber. The natural place to start is to ask the utility if it has clear easements for adding fiber. This is not always an easy thing for a utility to guarantee since some of the easements might have been negotiated more than a century ago. Examining the utility’s easement language should show if the easement is restrictive or open.
The chances are that you can build a network and never worry about this – many people have built fiber networks and never asked the question. But if an easement dispute is raised, you could be stopped in the construction process or even be stopped from using fiber that was built without an easement. Add this to the list of worries that come with building a new fiber network.