Saturday, March 19, 2011

FCC to Focus on Pole Attachment & Right of Way Reform, Utilities & Cities to Throw Tantrums

This Is About Fiber: Infrastructure Permitting Reform Needed to Keep Fiber Moving 03/18/2011 San Francisco - The April Open Meeting of the Federal Com- munications Commission will focus on ways to reform pole attachment and right of way (ROW) policies. Think that's a snooze? Go check the surging valuations of all things optical fiber, and come back.

Welcome back. The people that actually put fiber in the ground, attach it to utility poles, and pull it through existing conduit have a problem. In markets across the nation they often cannot do those things in any reasonable time because of abusive permitting practices by utilities (they own the poles and conduit) and municipalities (they think they own the streets). 

Utilities and cities create barriers to market entry by service providers attempting to build fiber rich networks. This does not occur in all markets, but it does happen in far too many of them. Certainly there are cities and utilites that have used model ordinances, truly efficient procedures, and neutral access processes for years.

If the network developers that actaully deploy fiber are blocked outright, as they sometimes are, and often slowed down considerably, the entire optical fiber business ecosystem becomes unhealthy. A good deal of optical transmission equipment will still be sold even if new fiber mileage is choked back. But deep fiber builds in the metros, new rural network builds, and the exploding increase in wireless broadband backhaul all require tens of thousands of new fiber miles along routes being developed today.   

In the aggregate the utilities and the cities that engage in abusive pole attachment and right of way permitting practices choke back investment. It happened during the Internet boom era. It is happening now.

Since 2005 the Commission has had an at least semi-active pole attachment proceeding in the works. Since the 1996 Telecommunications Act the federal government has at least made noises about curbing the excesses of municipal right of way permitting policies, while the industry and the public sector argue about the meaning of the Act's Section 253.

Now however, with investment in the optical sector at an inflection point, and seeing a national Administration that is serious about broadband, fiber network developers are imploring the Commission to act.

Yes, this is about wireless deployment too, as seen in the filings by the leading DAS (Distributed Antenna System) operators in the FCC pole attachment proceeding file.

Yeah but... This is about fiber. Good, bad, or indifferent, wireless has a greater standing in the eyes of federal law thanks to the '96 Act and other blessings. Most municipalities, state municipal leagues, and the municipal land use bar knows that pushing too hard on wireless wins a trip to federal court, albeit a rare one.

Fiber network planners and developers have no such Get Out of Jail Free cards.   

Bell System legacy: Some telco records still on paper.

That has been a problem for years, one made more challenging now as fiber moves deeper and more ubiquitously out to more homes and commercial addresses via FTTH deployments. National backbones and regional networks are also expanding, recapitalizing, and moving toward smaller cities. All of this acitivity requires right of way, much of it passing into and through multiple jurisdictions, typically each with its own ROW permitting practices. Much of it requires new conduit and pole attachments, the practices of which vary from one utility to another.

Lest all of us in telecom think the only "utility" bad actors are the big bad power companies, which many certainly are, go try to do a conduit search at a major telco that still keeps its records on paper in certain markets. Can you hear me now, Verizon (NYSE: VZ)?

As the Commission acts to remove those barriers to entry thrown up by utilities and cities -- said utilities and cities that have for decades fought any semblance of reform --  will throw the legal and political equivalent of toddlers' temper tantrums. 

Going forward, pay attention to why the fiber networks want a time out for the toddlers, and what those raging children need to be told while there. Also, keep in mind those cities and utilities that should be applauded for their record keeping and permitting efficiency. They have given us models for how to do this stuff right.

From the FCC Notice of the Commission Open  Meeting of April 7, 2011: 

  • Pole Attachment Report and Order and Order on Reconsideration:  An Order that reforms the Commission’s access, rates, and enforcement rules for utility pole attachments, reducing barriers to deployment and availability of broadband and other wireline and wireless services, and promoting competition.
  • Accelerating Broadband Deployment NOI:  A Notice of Inquiry seeking comment on key challenges and best practices in expanding the reach and reducing the cost of broadband deployment, including by improving policies for access to government rights of way and wireless facility siting requirements.
  • Data Roaming Second Report and Order: A Second Report and Order that adopts a rule requiring facilities-based providers of commercial mobile data services to offer data roaming arrangements to other such providers on commercially reasonable terms and conditions, subject to certain limitations.
  • Signal Boosters Declaratory Ruling, NPRM, and Order:  A Declaratory Ruling, NPRM and Order that helps to fill gaps in wireless coverage and expands broadband in rural and difficult-to-serve areas, while protecting wireless networks from harm.
  • Structure and Practices of Video Relay Service Program:  Report and Order will adopt rules to detect and prevent fraud and abuse in the provision of video relay service (“VRS”).  Also, a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposes to require all VRS providers to obtain certification from the FCC under new, tighter certification procedures in order to receive compensation from the TRS Fund.
  • Reliability and Continuity of Communications Networks NOI:  A Notice of Inquiry seeking comment on existing reliability standards for communications networks, including broadband networks, and ways to further strengthen the reliability and continuity of communications networks to avoid disruptions of service during major emergencies, such as large-scale natural and man-made
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