The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved regulations that could help speed broadband deployment and improve competition by making it easier for providers that want to enter a city to use existing utility poles.
The order, called "one touch make ready," could allow new entrants, like Google Fiber, to use a single contractor to move all of the equipment on a utility pole -- including equipment owned by longstanding broadband providers.
The new process "speeds and reduces the cost of broadband deployment by allowing the party with the strongest incentive -- the new attacher -- to prepare the pole quickly, rather than spreading the work across multiple parties," the FCC stated Thursday. "By some estimates, one-touch, make-ready alone could result in approximately 8.3 million incremental premises passed with fiber and about $12.6 billion in incremental fiber capital expenditures."
Google Fiber voiced its support for the plan last month in a blog post. John Burchett, public policy director at the company, called "one touch make ready" a "common sense policy that will dramatically improve the ability of new broadband providers to enter the market and offer competitive service."
He also suggested that Google's prior efforts to build a high-speed broadband network were hampered by difficulties gaining access to utility poles.
"When we started Google Fiber eight years ago, we knew that building a new fiber network was going to be hard, slow and expensive," he wrote. "But what we didn’t fully appreciate were the obstacles we would face around a key part of the process: gaining timely access to space on utility and telephone poles to place new communications equipment."
In 2016, Google successfully lobbied for "one touch make ready" legislation in Nashville, where city officials voted to allow a single contractor to move all of the equipment on a pole. But the law was struck down in court this January, after Comcast and AT&T sued on the grounds that the city lacked authority to issue the ordinance. The companies argued that the "one-touch-make-ready" measure violated their contracts with the city, and that the ordinance was trumped by federal law.
Some industry observers also have long called for regulatory reforms that would give would-be providers easier access to utility poles. "America, we have a problem, and it is tall, ubiquitous, and on the side of the road. It is poles," Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford wrote two years ago in Wired. "Poles are the key to our future, because poles are critical components of high-speed fiber optic internet access."
But the FCC's order has some wiggle room that could prove problematic. That's because the new rules won't apply to what the FCC calls "more complicated attachments."
That exception appears to have troubled Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted to approve the order in part, but also dissented in part. She raised particular concerns about the exception for complicated attachments, arguing the term's vagueness could lead to lawsuits.