In two recent FCC filings, Charter Communications, Inc. (Charter) offered further evidence that efforts to connect rural Americans to broadband hinge upon agency action ensuring access to utility poles "on reasonable timelines, terms and conditions." Specifically, the grant, whether through declaratory ruling or notice-and comment rulemaking, of the forms of relief requested by NCTA – The Internet & Television Association (NCTA) in a Petition for Expedited Declaratory Ruling submitted in July 2020 and denied by the Wireline Competition Bureau in January of this year.
As I highlighted in "Charter Announces Ambitious Project to Deploy Broadband to Over One Million Unserved Locations," a February 2021 post to the FSF Blog, Charter is investing $5 billion, including $1.2 billion in subsidies secured via winning bids in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction, to expand its network in 24 states. This will enable it to offer high-speed Internet access – specifically, service that meets or exceeds the FCC's current 25 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream definition of "broadband" – to more than one million locations at present unserved.When it unveiled its plans, Charter cautioned that "pole applications, pole replacement rules and their affiliated issue resolution processes are all factors that can have a significant impact on the length of time it takes to build into these rural areas."
And in conversations last week with representatives of the Wireline Competition Bureau and legal advisors to Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, Charter presented specific evidence of issues relating to the processing of pole applications that threaten its ability not just to connect rural Americans, but to meet deadlines associated with RDOF subsidies.
Maureen O'Connell, Charter Vice President, Regulatory Affairs, detailed one impasse, involving the Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation (WRECC) in rural Kentucky, that jeopardizes its plans to provide broadband to over six thousand unserved locations:
At the permit processing rate currently proposed by WRECC, it would take 14 years to complete the permitting process for attachments to poles to reach these locations – about seven times longer than planned and double the maximum allowed to deploy these federal taxpayer dollars under RDOF. That means a child in kindergarten now will have graduated from high school before the permitting phase is complete.
Charter also identified pole-related disputes in California, Hawaii, and South Carolina and "expressed concern that some pole owners have competitive incentives to delay broadband deployment by attaching entities because they are themselves affiliated with broadband providers who are putative competitors to the attaching entities, including (in the case of WRECC) affiliates or business partners receiving RDOF support."
In July 2020, NCTA filed with the FCC a Petition for Expedited Declaratory Ruling (NCTA Petition) seeking relief in rural areas including: (1) various clarifications regarding the appropriate allocation of pole replacement costs between attachers and owners, and (2) timely resolution of pole-related disputes via the Commission's Accelerated Docket.
Free State Foundation President Randolph May and Director of Policies Studies and Senior Fellow Seth Cooper filed Comments in support of the NCTA Petition.
In a January 2021 Declaratory Ruling, the Wireline Competition Bureau did clarify that "utilities may not require requesting attachers to pay the entire cost of pole replacements that are not necessitated solely by the new attacher and, thus, may not avoid responsibility for pole replacement costs by postponing replacements until new attachment requests are submitted."
As a general matter, however, the Wireline Competition Bureau denied the NCTA Petition, concluding that "it is more appropriate to address questions concerning the allocation of pole replacement costs within the context of a rulemaking, which provides the Commission with greater flexibility to tailor regulatory solutions."
The picture painted by Charter underscores how important it is for the FCC to provide additional clarity and guidance with respect to the respective rights and responsibilities of pole owners and attachers.
In that regard, I point out that, in a statement to Telecompetitor, a self-described "puzzled" WRECC disputed Charter's allegations and expressed "hope than we can come to an agreement soon." Thus, it would seem that the parties involved are not on the same page. Prompt intervention by the FCC holds the potential to accelerate the deployment of network infrastructure.
In other words, the policy goal of rapid rural broadband expansion compels precisely the relief requested in the NCTA Petition: "expedited consideration under the Accelerated Docket."
As noted above, the Wireline Competition Bureau denied NCTA's request for declaratory relief because it believed that a rulemaking of general applicability would be the more appropriate vehicle. It is time to begin that process.