Fighting over telephone poles in rural America is slowing internet adoption

WASHINGTON – The US plans to spend at least $60 billion over the next decade to ensure every American home has high-speed internet. An old-fashioned obstacle stands in the way: utility poles.

Giving everyone the same level of service that city dwellers enjoy generally means extending fiber optic cables to homes, farms, and ranches in rural areas. Many of these places already have utility poles that carry electricity or phone lines.

The pylons are owned by electrical or phone companies, which often don’t get public funding for broadband rollouts, sparking skirmishes that some ISPs blame for slowing down necessary upgrades.

Disputes over power poles have stuck broadband projects in Kentucky, Michigan and South Carolina. A dispute in Socorro, NM left two elementary schools without high-speed Internet for several years.

“Our students have really suffered,” said Ron Hendrix, superintendent for the Socorro School District. It’s “years without a high-speed network to two schools that really need it.”

The Socorro School District has been working to provide high-speed internet to students at Midway Elementary School since 2017.

The disputes complicate a rural broadband rollout that Washington is pushing with renewed vigor, part of the federal government’s growing role in Internet services as it seeks to improve U.S. infrastructure. The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the need for broadband as many Americans left cities for rural areas.

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission launched a $9 billion program to expand rural networks. States are spending billions of dollars more, drawing on federal Covid relief funds and their own coffers. And in 2021, a bipartisan infrastructure bill committed $42.5 billion to the cause.

Pole owners including Exelon Corp. and AT&T Inc., say they will house other lines on their towers as long as they are adequately compensated for the “preparation” costs, such as replacing old towers or running existing wires.

Internet providers that don’t own towers, such as Charter Communications Inc., argue that utilities are often reluctant to provide access or increase their rates.

READ :  WEF: Marcos promises to tackle slow PH internet and cybersecurity

“Without intervention, the current state of pole replacement issues poses a clear risk to the nation’s commitment to connecting 100% of Americans,” the FCC’s Charter said in a recently filed filing.

Charters and other providers are launching a nationwide campaign to get the FCC and states to shift more pole replacement costs to utilities, including a pole-focused advocacy group called Connect the Future, which has an advertising budget of one million dollars available.

The disputes in Socorro and other areas complicate the federal government’s rural broadband rollout.

Pole owners are pushing back, saying increasing utility costs could lead to more disputes and delays.

“We don’t think we’re going to be fully compensated now, but we’re doing it anyway,” said Tom Magee, an attorney who specializes in pole issues for Exelon and other electrical companies. “It’s not that we don’t have anything better to do.”

Mr. Hendrix, the superintendent in Socorro, said the district has been working to reach Midway Elementary School and one other school with fiber optic cable since 2017. The original plan called for about 23 miles of cable to be attached to poles owned by local electric utility Socorro Electric Cooperative Inc.

The school district was approved for an FCC grant, but then learned that costs associated with the pole would be higher than expected. The utility said 189 of the 341 poles on the line weren’t strong or tall enough to accommodate the new cables and would need to be replaced. The school district’s bill would be $765,450 plus taxes — about $200,000 more than the utility’s original estimate.

The district claimed that maintenance of the poles was the responsibility of the utility company. A Socorro County-sponsored evaluation described the poles as “collectively the worst poles we’ve ever seen.”

By 2022, school officials had decided to bury the cables underground instead. This project is scheduled to start later this year.

Socorro Electric CEO Joseph Herrera said he warned the district the cost estimate could go up. “The pylons are sufficient for electricity service,” he said. “Electricity payers should not be burdened with the cost of upgrading to fiber.”

READ :  10 of The Most Powerful Websites on The Internet That Will Help You | by Jerry Keszka | Oct, 2022

Classes at Midway Elementary School. The school district was approved for an FCC grant, but then faced higher than expected pole-related costs.

Sometimes pole fights involve potential competitors. In 2020, Charter received FCC funding to expand fiber broadband to approximately 6,000 locations near Bowling Green, Kentucky. It attempted to attach the cables to poles owned by the Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corp.

Warren Rural Electric is rolling out its own broadband service in the area and had been vying for the FCC funds that Charter had won. Charter says Warren Rural Electric has proposed a permit plan that would take 14 years to complete.

“A child in kindergarten will now have completed high school before the permitting phase is complete,” Maureen O’Connell, charter vice president of regulatory affairs, said in a 2021 letter to the FCC.

The companies have since reached an agreement to allow charters access to the poles.

A spokeswoman for Warren Rural Electric said the utility offered Charter an expedited schedule prior to the date of the FCC letter. She said it’s not interested in competing with Charter, but rather reaching out to members of the coop who don’t have high-speed internet service.

Perhaps no company has more at stake than Charter, owner of cable brand Spectrum. It has a 24-state rural expansion plan that relies on $1.2 billion in FCC subsidies and includes installing fiber optics on hundreds of thousands of poles.

Charter is leading the campaign to change rules that generally require ISPs to foot the bill when new towers are needed for a broadband project. The company says this is a godsend for the bar owners, who essentially get a new bar for free. It also lobbies state or federal governments to pay for new poles and create faster dispute resolution systems.

READ :  Mom punishes daughter by cutting her hair. Internet is super angry

The Socorro School District Superintendent says there are “years without a high-speed network to two schools that really need it.”

Connect the Future, the advocacy group that Charter helped organize, is running Facebook ads stating, “Fixing aging utility poles is the first step” policymakers must take to connect all Americans.

The group does not disclose its advertising spend. An internal document by one of its members, seen by The Wall Street Journal, shows that between August and December 2022 it had a budget of around $1.2 million for ads targeting US senators. Connect the Future said actual ad spend was lower, but declined to say by how much.

Jonathan Splitter, president of trade group USTelecom, of which AT&T is a member, said Charter should have anticipated the cost of replacing masts when it accepted public funds.


What’s the best way to ensure every American household has high-speed internet? Join the conversation below.

“There’s only one reason Charter is seeking these rule changes, and that’s because it’s trying to get federal and federal policymakers to grant them a bailout on the backs of their competitors and taxpayers,” he said.

Pole owners say they get no benefit from replacing poles sooner than necessary. They also say that disputes are rare.

AT&T, which owns millions of poles, said in an FCC filing last year that pole replacements were required in less than 1% of the 137,000 pole-fixing requests processed between 2019 and 2021.

The FCC has not committed to updating its rules. A spokeswoman said the agency aims to “strike a balance between local authorities of mast owners and internet service providers”.

Socorro School officials have decided to bury fiber optic cables underground instead of using poles. The project is scheduled to start this year.

Write to Ryan Tracy at [email protected]

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8