Monday, March 13, 2023

Rural broadband has an old-fashioned obstacle: utility poles

Utility poles near Socorro, New Mexico, where a dispute over their use for high-speed internet service has left two elementary schools without high-speed service for several years. (Photo by Ramsay de Give, The Wall Street Journal)

As the United States launches its largest effort ever to get broadband to rural areas, "an old-fashioned obstacle stands in the way: utility poles," reports Ryan Tracy of The Wall Street Journal. "The poles are owned by electric or phone companies that often aren’t getting public money to build out broadband, triggering skirmishes that some internet providers blame for slowing needed upgrades. Disputes involving utility poles have gummed up broadband projects in Kentucky, Michigan and South Carolina. One squabble in Socorro, N.M., left two elementary schools without high-speed internet for several years."

Pole owners, such as AT&T and rural electric cooperatives, "say they accommodate other lines on their poles as long as they are fairly compensated for 'make ready' costs, such as replacing old poles or moving existing wires," Tracy reports. "Internet providers who don’t own poles, such as Charter Communications, counter that utilities often drag their feet in allowing access or pad their fees."

Charter, which uses the Spectrum brand and has a 24-state rural expansion plan that would use $1.2 billion in federal subsidies, is leading a campaign to get the Federal Communications Commission and states "to shift more pole-replacement costs to utilities," Tracy reports. "Pole owners are pushing back, saying that raising utilities’ costs could lead to more disputes and delays."

The New Mexico schools wanted to attach about 23 miles of cable to poles of Socorro Electric Cooperative, which said 189 of the 341 poles would need to be replaced because they "weren’t strong or tall enough to accommodate the new wires," which would cost $765,450, about $200,000 more than its initial estimate, Tracy reports. An evaluation funded by Socorro County described the poles as “collectively the worst poles we’ve seen anywhere.” Now the schools have decided to put the wires underground. Socorro Electric CEO Joseph Herrera told Tracy, “The poles are adequate for electric service. The ratepayers of electricity should not be burdened with the cost of upgrading to accommodate fiber.” Tracy notes that some co-ops are "potential competitors" with companies that want to use their poles.

Charter and other internet providers want to change rules that generally require them to pay if new poles are needed, saying that gives pole owners a free pole. "It is also lobbying state or federal governments to pay for new poles and create faster systems for resolving disputes," Tracy reports. "Jonathan Spalter, president of the trade group USTelecom, whose members include AT&T, said Charter should have anticipated pole-replacement costs when it accepted public funds."

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