FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai outlined, in a speech this week at Think Big Partners in Kansas City, MO, a five-part plan including lower rates for pole attachments — for promoting his digital broadband agenda. Specifically with regard to pole attachments, Commissioner Pai stated “If we want more affordable broadband and more competition, we need to take a fresh look at those rates.” In addition to reducing pole attachment rates, Pai supported preemption of local ordinances that delay broadband deployment; a model-code for states and localities to follow for encouraging broadband deployment and competitive entry; adopting shot clocks for agencies to process applications and other measures to give broadband providers faster access to federal lands; and “dig once” policies to deploy fiber simultaneously with road and highway construction.
During his speech, Commissioner Pai highlighted Kansas City company success stories for which he credits the democratization of entrepreneurship through broadband access. He then noted that 34-million Americans don’t have broadband access to take advantage of the broadband economy and argued that his proposal of a Digital Empowerment Agenda would allow all Americans to make their lives better. His proposal is heavy on tax incentives for broadband companies, requires communities not to impede broadband buildouts and calls for the provision of tax incentives for start-up companies. While it is noteworthy that the Commissioner seems to support Federal preemption through FCC orders to ensure that local governments do not stand in the way of broadband deployment, the most troubling part of the proposal is his misguided focus on additional pole attachment regulations.
As he had already stated in March during an FCC oversight hearing: “First and foremost, we should reduce the costs that utilities may charge Internet service providers for preparing poles, ducts, conduits, and rights-of-way for pole attachments.” During the hearing, he also characterized make-ready as a “major barrier to competitive entry” by broadband providers, but he added that “there’s no need for congressional action, the FCC already has the power to act and can start a rulemaking on the subject.” His remarks in Kansas City make clear that he still believes that lowering the attachment rates, which generally do not cover utilities’ costs, will suddenly entice providers who have not shown an interest in the past to deploy broadband in unserved and underserved areas to invest in areas they have been neglecting.
Utilities have argued for years that imposing regulatory solutions as proposed by Commissioner Pai would not promote broadband deployment; instead, the FCC should be advocating cooperation between pole owners and attachers. There is also concern that Congress, or the FCC, could try to extend pole attachment regulations to cooperatives and municipalities.