Rural phone carriers join small cable operators in support of Pennsylvania assuming jurisdiction over pole attachments

The two communications industries on the front lines of delivering broadband to rural homes and businesses are supporting the Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) pending order to assume jurisdiction over pole attachments from the FCC.

Matt Polka, President and CEO of the American Cable Association (ACA), said that the smaller and mid-size cable operators agree with the rural phone carriers, or RLECs, represented by the Pennsylvania Telephone Association (PTA), over the benefits of having the PUC oversee pole attachment issues in Pennsylvania.

“Rural broadband has really put a spotlight on the problem both of our industries have had over access to utility poles,” Polka said. “The PUC will bring a greater, local focus on the issues and disputes, and will be better equipped to resolve them.”

PTA President Steve Samara said that ready and fair access to poles was vital to bringing higher speed broadband to homes and businesses in rural areas in Pennsylvania, many of whom rely exclusively on the RLECs for not only broadband but voice service as well.

“My members companies remain committed to providing affordable voice and broadband in areas where it is costliest to provide that service,” Samara said. “But we can’t efficiently deliver that service, especially the higher broadband speeds customers are demanding, without uniform and cost effective access to the poles.”

In July, the PUC issued a proposed rulemaking called “reverse-preemption” for Pennsylvania to follow 15 other states in assuming jurisdiction over the poles. States are permitted to assume regulatory control over poles under the 1996 federal Telecommunications Act, and are increasingly doing so with the demands for higher broadband speeds in rural areas.

The carriers and cable operators have experienced instances where “pole owners have simply refused to respond to attachment requests, or respond, accept payment for make ready work or attachment costs, and fail to do the work,” according to PTA comments submitted on October 20 on the proposed reverse-preemption.

“In other cases,” the comments said, “the companies have experienced exorbitant and/or unjustified make-ready/attachment quotes.”

Samara and Polka said their two associations were also in agreement that the PUC should emulate the FCC’s regulatory progress covering the attachments, and not move Pennsylvania in a separate direction.

“If the FCC makes changes to improve the process, Pennsylvania will automatically follow suit,” they said. “If the FCC is slow to act or takes no action to remedy any problems which remain, then the PUC would have the ability to consider its own remedy.”

For many of those out of reach of wireless services, the cable operators and RLECs are the only options for high-speed broadband.

Samara said that his member companies have extensive experience in deploying broadband throughout the Commonwealth under a variety of statutory and regulatory directives including the provisions of Act 183 of 2004 and the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF).

“Act 183 statutorily mandated universal broadband availability to any customer at speeds of 1.544Mbps within ten business days of a request,” he said. “The companies met their statutory obligations and, in most if not all areas throughout Pennsylvania, have exceeded them.”

Both association heads said they are committed to working with the PUC, state lawmakers and Governor Tom Wolf’s Office of Broadband Initiatives to explore any alternatives that would facilitate the accelerated deployment of broadband services in rural Pennsylvania.
“High-speed rural broadband is an absolute right for every citizen,” Polka said. “It gives smaller, rural towns the ability to keep pace and compete with the larger urban areas.”