Internet service providers face many barriers in deploying broadband, including access to utility poles. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates attachments in 29 states, but the other 21 states and the District of Columbia have each implemented their own pole attachment regulations. This has created a complex mix of federal, state, and local authority that can complicate entry for new service providers because they require access to the poles to deploy service. It has also created a confusing system for local leaders, who are responsible for ensuring that the processes in place for use of the right-of-way, including the space in which utility poles are located, are not overly burdensome. However, this complexity actually gives a great deal of flexibility to states, and sometimes municipal governments, so they have the power to determine what process works best in their community and to facilitate agreements.
Before a new provider can attach its wire, including fiber optic cables, to a pole, each owner of currently attached wires must be asked to assess and move their wires if necessary–a process called “make ready.” Utility poles may be owned by the local government, a municipal electric, a private entity, or a combination of the three. In most cases, the poles are owned by a private entity like the incumbent phone company or electric company. The more groups with attached wires, the longer – and more costly – the make ready process becomes. The make ready process can take months for each attaching entity to complete since each of the following steps must be completed by every party with a wire on the utility pole in question before a new entity can attach its wires:
- The owner of the pole must assess whether the pole where the attachment is requested has room for the new attachment and identify if there are safety or capacity issues.
- If a capacity or safety issue exists, it must be addressed prior to any attachment changes.
- If no capacity or safety issues exist, each party with a wire previously attached to the pole must be notified of the request to attach a new wire.
- Each party with a wire must individually arrange to send a contractor and truck to the pole. This process involves multiple companies each sending a truck on a different day to the same pole to move wires until appropriate space is made for the requested attachment.
As a result, the utility pole and the surrounding area become a recurring construction site, all for the deployment of a single new wire. This is inconvenient for residents, who may experience noise, traffic back ups, and temporary service interruptions. This process is time and capital intensive for new providers, who must bear the cost of all make ready work. Incumbent providers may have an incentive to prolong make ready work, thus avoiding new, unwanted competition. This process creates a strong barrier to entry, which lowers the incentive to deploy new networks.
One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) is a process some cities have instituted to address this issue. OTMR policies allow a single contractor, or a select group of contractors, that all existing pole owners agree upon to conduct all new make ready work. Benefits of OTMR include:
- Allows construction to be completed faster and more safely than having multiple contractors at each pole
- Benefits residents by allowing access to new services more quickly, and decreasing inconveniences of make ready work, including noise, traffic disruptions, and service outages
- Decreasing the time and capital cost of construction, which lowers barriers to entry and may incentivize new investment in a community, which can lead to increased competition and higher speeds
- As competition increases, the cost of service should decrease and the services from incumbents should improve, benefiting companies and residents in the area.
Some cities have implemented OTMR policies, such as Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee. In other areas, such as San Antonio, Texas, those policies have been put in place by municipal utilities. In Louisville, the majority of utility poles are owned by private utilities, which made the make ready process long and expensive for new entrants. The city passed an OTMR bill in 2016 in attempt to streamline this process and incentivize new providers to deploy in the area. The legislation states that an applicant for attachment must first receive approval from the existing pole owners, at which point it may contract a pre-approved construction crew to perform all make ready work at its own expense. Pole owners and pre-existing providers whose wires were moved may choose to do post-make ready work inspections and call for remedial work if needed, at the new provider’s expense.
The majority of poles in Nashville are owned by the municipal electric utility and private companies, such as Comcast and AT&T; new entrants often wait months for each incumbent provider to move its wires. Before the Nashville bill was enacted, Mayor Megan Barry approached all invested parties and asked them to come up with their own streamlined process in order to reduce the barriers to entry, but they were unable to agree on a solution. As a result, Nashville’s city leaders decided to mimic Louisville’s OTMR bill, which the Nashville Metro Council easily passed in September, 2016. San Antonio, Texas’ municipal utility CPS Energy, put similar OTMR policies in place in August, 2016. New providers looking to attach to CPS’ poles must select a contractor to perform make ready work from a pre-approved list, and once completed the incumbent providers have 15 days to inspect the work.
Some incumbent providers have pushed back on local OTMR ordinances, which has delayed implementation. Those opposing OTMR policies, including Comcast and AT&T, have argued that each provider has its own internal process for make ready work, and OTMR does not do enough to take these processes into account. Furthermore, they state that they have their own trusted contractors that they train to handle their wires, though in reality, many contractors work for multiple providers. Union workers have also expressed concern about OTRM policies, as it is unclear what their role would be under the new system. Despite these concerns, the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) General Counsel has stated that OTMR is consistent with federal policy.
Most local governments have authority over the public rights-of-way, including the utility poles in the rights-of-way. Cities can use this power to create policies that would make them the best partners possible for deployment of fast, affordable, and reliable broadband access in their communities. Along with other common sense solutions such as dig once, multiple dwelling unit (MDU) regulation, and streamlining the permitting process, OTMR can lower the barriers to entry for new providers and can facilitate the deployment of broadband.
Next Century Cities encourages cities and counties to pursue opportunities that will allow for a fast, safe, and affordable pole attachment process, so that more Americans can access high-quality broadband, which is critical infrastructure in the 21st century. For more information on OTMR, and the federal and state policies that impact your community’s ability to implement this policy, please see our Pole Attachment Guide and our article on Medium. As always, please contact us if you need any additional help or resources.
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