The FCC Tackles Pole Replacements

In March, the FCC issued a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking FCC 22-20 that asks if the rules should change for allocating the costs of a pole replacement that occurs when a new carrier asks to add a new wire or device onto an existing pole. The timing of this docket is in anticipation of a huge amount of rural fiber construction that will be coming as a result of the tsunami of state and federal broadband grants.

The current rules push the full cost of replacing a pole onto the entity that is asking to get onto the pole. This can be expensive, and is one of the factors that make it a challenge for a fiber overbuilder or a small cell site carrier to get into poles.

There are several reasons why a pole might need to be replaced to accommodate a new attacher:

  • The pole might be completely full, and there is no room for the new attacher. There are national safety standards that must be met for the distance between each attacher on a pole – these rules are intended to make it safe for technicians to work on or repair cables. There is also a standard for the minimum clearance that the lowest attacher must be above the ground – a safety factor for the public.
  • The new attacher might be adding additional weight or wind resistance to a pole – there is a limit on how much weight a pole should carry to be safe. Wind resistance is an important factor since there is a lot of stress put onto poles when heavy winds push against the wires.

This docket was prompted in 2020 when the NCTA – the Internet and Television Association filed a petition asking that pole owners pay a share of pole replacement costs. The petition also asked for an expedited review process of pole attachment complaints between carriers.

NCTA makes some valid points. Many existing poles are in bad shape, and the new attacher is doing a huge favor for the pole owner if it pays for poles that should have been replaced as part of regular maintenance. Anybody who works in multiple markets knows of places where almost all of the existing poles are in bad shape and should be replaced by the pole owner. The FCC labels such poles as already being out of compliance with safety and utility construction standards and asks if it’s fair for a new attacher to pay the full cost of replacement. The FCC is asking if some of the costs of a replacement should be allocated to the pole owner and existing attachers in addition to the new attacher.

Not surprisingly, both AT&T and Verizon have responded to this docket by saying the current cost allocation processes are fine and shouldn’t be changed. This is not an unexpected response for two reasons. First, these two companies probably have more miles of cable on existing poles than anybody else, and they do not want to be slapped with paying a share of the cost of replacing poles from new attachers. More importantly, the big telcos have always favored rules that slow down construction for competitors – pole attachment problems can bring a fiber construction project to a screeching halt.

In contrast, INCOMPAS filed comments on behalf of fiber builders. INCOMPAS said that pole attachment issues might be the single most important factor that will stop the federal government from meeting its goals of connecting everybody to broadband. INCOMPAS says that the extra costs for pole replacement in rural areas can sink a fiber project.

As usual with a regulatory question, the right answer is somewhere in the middle of the extremes. It is unfair to force a new attacher to pay the full cost to replace a pole that is already in bad shape. Pole owners should have an obligation to do regular maintenance to replace the worst poles in the network each year – and many have not done so. It’s also fair, in some circumstances, for the existing attachers to pay a share of the pole replacement when existing attachments are in violation of safety rules. And, if we are going to build billions of dollars of new broadband networks as a result of grants, it makes sense for regulators to gear up for an expedited process of resolving disputes between carriers concerning poles.