New Rules for Old Poles Will Help Close the Digital Divide

Originally published at Huffington Post

Americans are hungry for increased economic development and more opportunity for all citizens to participate. There are all sorts of solutions debated in policy circles. Speeding up broadband deployment is one of the best options to further broad-based economic development that ensures the availability of new tools for education and healthcare for everyone.

On both sides of the aisle, a high level of bipartisan agreement exists on the need to deploy fast broadband to all parts of the country to serve as many consumers as possible. This includes bringing high-speed broadband to both urban consumers and Americans living in hard-to-reach rural areas.

Much of the talk in Washington right now about broadband is focused on a potential infrastructure bill. But it’s unclear whether Congress will even pass an infrastructure bill, or how much it would focus on broadband, and even whether this is the best approach to speed broadband deployment.

People waiting for fast broadband shouldn’t have to wait for Congress to act when other initiatives can quickly help speed the path towards greater broadband deployment, particularly wired broadband. For example, the FCC has been seeking to promote broadband deployment by removing some existing barriers to infrastructure investment.

Back in 2011, the FCC changed its Pole Attachment rules as a way to speed up broadband deployment. Unfortunately, that attempt did not work out as planned since those rules allowed state and local governments to make it more difficult for individual broadband providers to quickly deploy new broadband facilities and technologies. So the FCC revisited those rules requiring utilities to speed up their decision-making process when service providers request access to utility poles to provide broadband service. This is considerably faster than the latest system, in which requests too frequently got bogged down in bureaucracy. The FCC also recently asked for comment on ways to speed up retirement of antiquated legacy systems so that providers can invest and build out more modern broadband communications networks. By simplifying the retirement process, service providers can focus on deploying faster technologies that customers want and need, instead of maintaining the legacy networks from the last century.

Rules about attaching new equipment to existing poles and other municipal-owned infrastructure (e.g., lamp posts) may not sound sexy, but they are necessary steps to further broadband deployment, particularly as it relates to the next generation of wireless services—so-called 5G services. It can be hard for providers to get access to rights-of-way and to the poles themselves.

If we are serious about speeding broadband deployment, the FCC has to get into the nitty-gritty questions about access to poles, equipment, contractors, how long the process should take, how providers should be compensated, and similar issues. It can all seem a bit like separating two fighting children on the playground at times, but even among people of goodwill, there are important issues regarding access to private property and fair compensation for its use.

To its credit, the FCC is not just blaming other levels of government, it has also been asking about any federal rules that raise costs and delay or inhibit broadband deployment. They’re taking a look at how they can best improve their own rules and processes. A big part of this is examination of the FCC’s rules on retiring copper wires in favor of the transition to Internet Protocol-based systems. Quite simply, allowing providers to retire copper sooner rather than later frees up more money to invest in broadband. We’ll get faster broadband deployment if providers are able to focus on investment in new services rather than shackling them with requirements for old, legacy services.

We should all be grateful about the remarkable progress that takes place every year in broadband, but now comes the toughest part: finishing, by lifting obstacles to invest and deploy broadband for consumers and small business. Streamlined rules and faster approvals will help companies deploy more broadband more quickly. It’s a virtuous cycle – and it starts with fashioning a sensible regulatory regime that protects consumers without getting in the way of more Americans getting the broadband they need and deserve.

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