Network Investment and Access

A Big Step Toward Universal Broadband Connectivity

March 22, 2022

The FCC has taken an important step toward making universal broadband connectivity a reality as quickly as possible.

At its March 16th meeting, the Commission initiated a proceeding that will clarify the rules and expedite dispute resolution over utility pole replacement—a significant, if unglamorous, barrier to putting the billions of dollars of broadband infrastructure funds to work quickly to achieve the goal of getting 100% of the country online.

As those of us who have been building gigabit broadband in rural areas know, attaching wires to utility poles is often the biggest gating factor in terms of how long it takes to activate service so that consumers can finally get fast broadband. 

In contrast to the few claiming pole reform isn’t necessary, Charter has actually been building gigabit broadband in rural areas for years. Over the past 4 years we’ve expanded our network to reach an additional 4 million new homes and businesses, roughly 1 million of which were in rural areas. That’s us investing billions in private capital to entirely new places, not upgrading old infrastructure. We know first-hand what it takes to bring broadband to rural areas (and what the hurdles are), and have been recognized for that, most recently being rated the nation’s #1 Rural Broadband Provider by US News & World Report.

In the coming years, we will connect another million families to reliable, high-speed internet access – families that today have no access to broadband – and this time almost all will be in rural areas and in some of the hardest to reach places. This effort will combine about $4 billion of private capital with about $1 billion of FCC subsidies. We began the initiative in October of 2020—before any federal stimulus funds were available, but after COVID made clear that everyone needed broadband at home to work, learn, access healthcare, and connect with loved ones.

We started building to these homes last year because unserved communities need broadband ASAP. We didn’t wait to receive final government authorization, which we just got last week. And we’re already providing service to some of these communities, such as rural parts of El Paso County, Texas and Pike County, Missouri. The pole owners in those and many other areas are great partners, working with us to bring their communities broadband quickly.

There are other areas where we would already be offering service, such as Butler and Ohio counties in Kentucky, if we’d been able to get timely access to the poles. Instead, the pole owners are stalling, in some places refusing to even accept our applications for permits for more than 7 months.

Two major barriers stop broadband providers from attaching to poles, thereby preventing unserved families from getting connected. The first is when pole owners simply fail to approve applications for permits in a timely fashion (meaning they might take a year instead of a few months). Fortunately the FCC already has rules that address this. Unfortunately, many pole owners are not subject to those rules; states and the Tennessee Valley Authority should adopt timelines as the FCC has.

The second barrier lies in the abundance of old poles in rural areas. When an ISP seeks to attach its wire, some pole owners see it as a revenue source to finally replace that old pole the owners should have replaced ages ago. The law says there must be a proportional sharing of costs. Some say that despite the law, the ISP should pay the whole cost to replace the overdue poles as “the cost of doing business.” Yet “business” has nothing to do with it. Pole owners are utilities, and some of them use their leverage to force ISPs to pay for new poles that the utility will own and subsequently charge the broadband provider an annual rent to use, forever.

This is where the FCC’s actions last week come in. The agency seeks to clarify what a “proportional” share of the costs is and consider expediting resolution of disputes. People from all sides of the political spectrum are applauding the FCC’s initiation of this proceeding. No wonder: it has the potential to help unconnected families get fast broadband, faster.

Meanwhile, the more than 14.5 million Americans without broadband access aren’t the only ones being hurt. So are 330 million American taxpayers. The Infrastructure Act that President Biden recently signed includes roughly $45 billion for broadband deployment. The success of this investment will depend on reforming pole attachment and replacement rules. Without common-sense rules of the road, we will spend billions more in federal funding only to find that in the coming years, millions of unserved families are still unserved. But, with the right reforms, we can finally close the broadband access gap, taking connectivity further than ever before.