Abandoned Telecom Infrastructure

I saw an article about Merrill, Oregon where the city was wrestling about what to do with an abandoned cable TV network hanging on poles in the City. It’s actually a fairly common occurrence to have abandoned telecom property on poles and I’ve been contacted by a number of cities over the years wondering what how to deal with the situation.

In this particular case the historic cable system in the city was operated by Rapid Communications out of Texas. That company sold cable properties to a number of companies in 2008 and the Merrill system went to Almega Cable Company, which stopped offering service in the City and went out of business in 2011.

There are all sorts of telecom assets that have been abandoned on poles and defunct cable companies are only one example. I saw a lot of WiFi mesh networks abandoned fifteen years ago as operators folded and never retrieved their equipment. There are numerous CLECs that folded in the late 1990s and that walked away from fiber networks on poles.

Having an abandoned set of wires on poles complicates the lives of any other pole users in the market. The unused wires take up space on poles and make it hard for anybody else to add additional wires onto the pole.

Abandoned networks also create havoc for the normal pole attachment process. This process requires buy-in from existing utilities to move or rearrange cables to make room for a new attacher. A new attacher can be paralyzed if they are unable to create the required clearance from existing wires.

In the end I’ve almost always seen the responsibility for getting rid of the network fall to the local government. Somebody has to go through the process of making certain there is no remaining active owner of the network before it can be condemned. Generally the pole owner is not willing to take on that role unless they have a need of their own to add wires to the poles.

Merrill is now undertaking the task of condemning the network. They have to follow law and post public notices to make sure that nobody claims rights to the cables. In the case of a cable company the City not only has to deal with the wires on poles, but also with customer drops and pedestals scattered throughout the community.

Merrill is hoping that some new carrier will want to use the cable network for overlashing fiber. Overlashing is the process of tying the fiber to existing wires and is generally the lowest cost method of fiber construction. But even if they find a taker for the offer my guess is that the new fiber provider is not going to want to assume ownership for the coaxial cables since that would give them liability for any issues or problems with the old wiring. So the City might end up owning the cables in perpetuity. If they don’t find a buyer, the city will have to pay to have the cables removed – although in today’s market there might be enough value in the copper inside the coaxial cables to offset the cost of removal.

We are going to see a lot more abandoned assets on poles in the future. We are just now entering a period when numerous companies are going to want to hang wireless devices of all types on poles. Some of these devices are tiny and I’ve seen others that are the size of a dorm refrigerator. It’s inevitable that some of the wireless deployments will fail, or that the wireless companies will lose the customers served by a given device.

Over time a significant inventory of abandoned wireless devices will likely grow in most cities. And unlike an abandoned cable network, my guess is that it’s often going to be hard to know which wireless devices have been abandoned or even who owns many of them. Cities ought to be considering ordinances today that require the companies that deploy wireless devices to somehow notify them of what they are doing and to also clearly label the ownership of each device.

But there is a movement at the FCC, in Congress and in States legislatures to institute rules for wireless carriers that would override any local rules. Such global rules are going to hinder cities in the coming decades when they try to deal with abandoned assets clogging their pole lines. Most of the proposed new rules I’ve seen don’t address this issue, which will make it messy to deal with later.

The Louisville Pole Attachment Lawsuit

There has been a major legislative push lately to make it easier for wireless companies to get onto poles in order to deploy the small cell sites needed for 5G deployment. AT&T and Verizon have been leading the fight for easier access and there have been attempts at both the federal and state level to enact ‘one-touch’ rules. Proposed legislation not only sets a low price for compensating pole owners, but proposed legislation also removes the ability for pole owners or municipalities to slow down wireless deployments.

There is a lot of debate in the industry about the one-touch issue. As I have discussed in various blogs, issues with getting onto poles is still one of the major roadblocks to many fiber deployments. And from the examples cited by the cellular carriers they are seeing huge delays in deploying urban small cell sites.

Like any debate there are legitimate issues to be considered on both sides of the issues. Proponents of one-touch cite the extraordinary costs of wading through the paperwork-heavy pole attachment process as well as the dollar and cents costs of delaying construction projects.

But on the other side are pole owners and current networks hung on wires. Carriers are legitimately worried about safety issues for their technicians if large boxes the size of refrigerators are hung on poles without constraint. They legitimately worry about how such devices could cause problems during repairs from storm damage. And carriers are also worried about network outages if a new attacher is allowed and able to move their wires without their knowledge or permission.

A court decision a few weeks ago might be a first step into putting some clarity to the issue. In that suit AT&T had sued the City of Louisville in order to stop them from passing a one-touch make-ready ordinance. The ordinance was aimed at making it easier for Google Fiber and other competitive providers to get onto poles in the City. The City of Louisville owns most of the poles in the city and the City has been working with Google Fiber to deploy a fiber network to everybody in the City.

You have to let the irony of AT&T’s lawsuit sink in for a minute. This is a company that is spending millions right now lobbying for one-touch rules. AT&T not only wants to deploy small cell sites, but they are also in the process of building a huge amount of fiber to support those sites. And yet AT&T felt compelled to fight against the very kind of ordinance they are promoting because it would help one of their competitors.

It turns out that not all one-touch ordinances are the same. The ordinances that AT&T and Verizon are pushing are crafted very carefully to help them while still not making it quite so easy for their competitors. The Louisville ordinance made it easier for any new attacher to get onto poles, including AT&T.

The US District Court Judge of Kentucky completely rejected all of AT&T’s claims and tossed the lawsuit. The court basically said that all of AT&T’s claims in the suit were false. It’s ironic that many of the issues raised by the City in defense of the suit sound the same as the claims that AT&T makes elsewhere when lobbying for one-touch legislation.

I’ve always said that being in the regulatory department at AT&T has to be the hardest job in our industry. It’s a company that wears too many hats. AT&T owns a huge monopoly landline network and wants to protect itself from competitors. In some markets AT&T is a major pole owner. AT&T is also a huge wireless company that now wants access to poles. And AT&T is a huge builder of fiber, much of it now outside of its monopoly telco territory.

Any regulatory position the company takes to benefit one of these business lines is likely to not be in the best interest of other parts of the company. When looking at the big picture one has to think that AT&T will get far more benefit than harm from one-touch rules. Such rules will make it a lot easier to build more fiber and to deploy cell sites. And yet, a company with this many tentacles in the industry could not restrain itself from filing a lawsuit that probably was not in its own best long-term interest. The monopoly side of the company felt it could not sit back and let a competitor like Google Fiber build without the company taking steps to slow them down.