Why Cable TV and Telecom Companies Are Waging War Over Telephone Poles





Telephone Terminals in Disarray on Phone Pole

The Federal Communications Commission is slated to meet on Wednesday to vote on a seemingly benign and technical issue: streamlining the process to attach network equipment to poles. The issue, however, has kicked off a war of words between various trade groups representing the cable and telecom industries.

The FCC proposal, which comes after three years of discussions, aims to make it faster to get network equipment approved to hang on poles, and to more clearly define who bears the cost. It’s that second point that have both sides up in arms. Update: the FCC unanimously approved the proposed rule.

USTelecom, which counts AT&T and Verizon as members, last week published a post on its site that argued that the company that needs to put up a new pole should bear those costs, and companies that already have their existing poles (like AT&T and Verizon), shouldn’t have to pay. On Tuesday, Connect the Future, a group that includes Charter as a supporter, argued that the cost to modify or add to the should be shared between existing owners and those who need to rent space.

You’re likely rolling your eyes and the back and forth on such a procedural matter, but which way this matter swings could dictate how quickly companies will expand their broadband networks, particularly in rural and other hard-to-reach areas. In other words, this comes down to who pays for a big part of how you get your internet. Charter, in particular, has taken public funding to build out its network, and is also upgrading its entire network with fiber, and will need access to new and existing poles continue its expansion.

USTelecom claims it’s this dynamic that’s changed cable’s stance on who should bear the cost of paying for improvements to a pole.

“This self-serving proposal will not ‘remove a barrier to deployment’ or ‘speed deployment’ as proponents claim,” the trade group said in its post. “It simply shifts a well-established cost of deployment from companies newly committing to serving rural areas to companies that have invested in rural communities for decades.”

Connect the Future shot back, noting that the telecom companies have asked for the same kind of relief.

“USTelecom member companies understand these concerns very well, having repeatedly asked the FCC for assistance with excessive delays and for help securing “just and reasonable” pole attachment costs when they themselves have faced trouble in attaching their infrastructure to poles,” it said, arguing that too few pole owners bear the cost of repairing and upgrade their infrastructure.  

In addition to the cost side, the FCC is also proposing the creation of a “rapid response team” to deal with disputes about pole access and costs.

This issue came up in 2020 when the NCTA, another trade group that represents the cable industry, sought to get clarification from the FCC about who should pay for the costs of new poles and improvements to existing ones, particularly in underserved or unserved areas. With the pandemic underway, having access to high-speed internet became increasingly critical, which pushed this issue to the forefront.

After three years, the FCC is finally ready to vote on the issue.

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