Charter Communications has told the Federal Communications Commission that "timely and non-discriminatory" access to utility poles is "critical" for the cable operator and other broadband providers to provide access to unserved areas. Without assurances pertaining to reasonable timelines, terms and conditions for pole access, Charter fears that planned network buildouts to certain areas covered by the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) could be greatly delayed.
Charter made that opinion known at the FCC as it prepares to deploy fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) networks in dozens of unserved parts of the US following the phase I RDOF auction. The issue also threatens to enter the picture as dozens of other cable operators and telcos make plans to fulfill their RDOF commitments.
In an ex parte (PDF) filed with the FCC to describe a November 18, 2021, meeting between Charter and FCC officials, Charter claims it already has some recent, real-world reasons to back up its concerns.
Specifically, Charter referenced a situation that has arisen with Warren Rural Electric Cooperative (WRECC), an electric cooperative that operates as a Tennessee Valley Authority local power company in Kentucky. At issue is Charter's plan (as part of its broader RDOF investment) to extend its network to reach more than 6,000 homes and small businesses in the WRECC service areas of Butler, Ohio, Simpson and Warren counties by year-end 2023.
Charter says WRECC is insisting that the cable operator sign a new pole attachment agreement that, in Charter's view, could stretch the timeline of certain RDOF-related deployments by more than a dozen years.
Charter held that the cable operator and its predecessors had "operated for decades" under an agreement with WRECC for pole attachments that did not limit the number of attachments WRECC would process each month. The MSO insists that a new agreement sought by the organization would turn everything on its head.
"The new agreement ... would unreasonably and arbitrarily limit the number of pole attachment applications it would process, which would prevent Charter from meeting its RDOF timelines," the cable operator explained in the ex parte. "Unless action is taken to protect consumers in rural Kentucky, at the permit processing rate currently proposed by WRECC, it would take 14 years to complete the permitting process for attachments to poles to reach these locations – about seven times longer than planned and double the maximum allowed to deploy these federal taxpayer dollars under RDOF."
Charter claims that it had recently retained multiple firms to perform engineering work at WRECC's direction – and at Charter's expense – to ensure that the pole attachment process can be completed safely and quickly so construction can begin.
"These firms already work with several electric co-ops across Kentucky. Thus far, WRECC has not accepted this offer of assistance," Charter said.
WRECC hits back, Charter responds
WRECC does not agree with Charter's portrayal of events. It countered that it does not have a current pole attachment agreement with Charter, and that the cable operator has refused to sign its "standard agreement."
"Warren RECC is supportive of Charter's efforts to finally expand broadband to our members. We do not have a current pole attachment agreement with Charter. Charter refuses to sign Warren RECC's standard agreement, so we are working to execute one that still protects the safety and reliability of the electric system," WRECC said in a statement to Light Reading. "We are puzzled by these latest claims as Warren RECC has agreed to allow a faster pace as long as Charter meets its obligations. We are disappointed to see that once again Charter has chosen to rely on inaccuracies. We sincerely hope that we can come to an agreement soon, but we will not put the safety and reliability of our members' electric system in jeopardy."
In response, Charter tells Light Reading that the cable operator and WRECC currently operate under a pole attachment agreement that's "valid at least through April 2022." Charter also reiterated its position that it and its predecessors have operated "for decades under this agreement, which did not limit the number of attachments WRECC would process each month."
Charter claims this changed as soon as the operator began the permitting process to bring broadband services to unserved communities under RDOF. Charter said WRECC, for the first time, "implemented a hard cap on the number of requests it would accept to 120 per month, without discussion or negotiation." It is this, says Charter, that will massively delay its planned buildout.
"What is puzzling is how WRECC can claim to be 'supportive' of Charter's efforts while insisting on a timeline for processing permits that would take nearly 14 years of paperwork before we could build," Charter said. "For more than 6,000 families, WRECC's poles have become the digital divide – a physical barrier between broadband access and thousands of families in areas of truly desperate need – many of whom are themselves WRECC customers."
Charter cites other instances in other states
According to the ex parte, Charter told the FCC that it has identified a similar instance in Hawaii in which a pole owner "insisted on unreasonable conditions contrary to FCC rules to enter into a pole attachment agreement." Charter also points to other instances in California and South Carolina "in which pole owners had either changed their engineering standards, or applied unreasonable requirements unrelated to safety, that would unnecessarily increase the number of pole replacements required to complete projects."
Tied to these issues, Charter referenced a Petition for a Declaratory Ruling filed by the NCTA – The Internet & Television Association. That petition, filed July 16, seeks a ruling on the allocation of costs for pole replacements, and for making wider use of the FCC's accelerated docket to address pole access disputes in unserved areas.
Action by the FCC on that petition "could both assist with broadband deployment efforts directly (such as FCC-regulated pole owners) and indirectly (because many state regulators and statutes incorporate or look to the Commission's rules in setting their own pole attachment standards)," Charter said.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading
A version of this story first appeared on Light Reading.