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Pole Control Fight Gets Net Neutrality Nasty

UPDATE: San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, cited below, has now announced his resignation from the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.

Liccardo says in his letter: "We've made no progress toward a single proposal that will actually further the goal of equitable broadband deployment," and that "despite the good intentions of several participants, the industry heavy makeup of BDAC will simply relegate the body to being a vehicle for advancing the interests of the telecommunications industry over those of the public."


It's fair to say things got a little snappish at the FCC yesterday.

The Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) -- which is charged with laying out recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for driving broadband expansion in the US -- found itself facing a fundamental divide. Some members of the committee want rules that give communications service providers greater access to poles and other structures in the public right-of-way by guaranteeing local permit approvals and capping fees.

Others believe local officials have the right to determine rules of access based on the public interest. Specifically, they think that local governments have the right to negotiate with service providers to ensure that broadband buildouts reach all communities, thereby helping to close the digital divide.

The fault lines in the debate are clear. Industry folks want unfettered access, arguing that next-generation broadband services require it. Cities, and in some cases states, want service providers to recognize that there are other factors to consider, i.e. that it takes resources for local governments to oversee permitting, and that unregulated deployments without regard for the needs of an entire community are not in the interest of the citizens who collectively own the public assets in question. (See Broadband Fee Fight Gets Messy at the FCC.)

According to San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who is part of the working group in the BDAC focused on creating a municipal code for broadband deployment, his group was recently moving toward consensus in its discussions after many long hours of debate. However, before the group was able to present its ideas to the broader committee at the FCC this week, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) filed a separate proposal that Liccardo says was essentially a "rewrite of what had been very much worked through."

And he added that, "It was dispiriting for many of us who had been working hard to see suddenly things really swept aside for the industry proposal."

AT&T's argument is that if communities don't make it easier and cheaper for telecom companies to deploy their equipment, broadband deployments will stall out and consumers will suffer. The company says in an FCC filing that attachment rates should be capped at $50, and that higher rates would lead to "lost investment and/or higher services costs [that] would harm consumers and materially inhibit or limit a service provider's ability to provide wireless services at the quantity and quality customers now demand."

Chris Nurse, assistant vice president for external affairs at AT&T, also noted at this week's BDAC meeting that deployments of wireless small cells are an example of how the current pole attachment process isn't working because it's costly and time-consuming. He suggested that the cable industry's rollout of WiFi hotspots has been far more effective because there's no incremental cost or approval required for deploying each new wireless access point.

Ironically, however, David Don, vice president for regulatory policy at Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), pushed back on Nurse's assertion, pointing out that cable companies devote significant time and money to forming franchise agreements in order to enable those WiFi hotspot deployments.

"No one understands what you guys are trying to do with negotiating with thousands of cities better than the cable industry. We've been doing it for 50 years," said Don.

He added that, "We can see when you guys decided to enter the public rights-of-way for the first time after 20 years of building out your networks on public property, and this densification process you're undergoing, why you would want to seek a more streamlined approach than the cable franchising model. But to suggest that we're getting some kind of a free ride or it's a highly efficient system?

There's one piece, these WiFi hotspots, that you may want to point out, but this is part of a bigger negotiation which takes years with these communities."

Here's why the whole debate is so important. Although the BDAC group is only charged with making recommendations to the FCC, those recommendations will inevitably be picked up by both lobbyists and lawmakers in the future. In fact, many involved in the BDAC process have pointed out that often times legislators use the exact language included in an expert group's recommendations to craft new laws.

In other words, whatever goes in the final BDAC report could very well end up in a future bill presented to Congress.

Speaking of Congress, there's a draft bipartisan bill led by Senators John Thune (R-S.D.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) already in circulation that proposes to create a federal standard for permitting timelines for the deployment of communications equipment needed to support new 5G wireless broadband services.

The bill hasn't been formally introduced in the Senate, but its proponents may be (among other reasons) waiting to see the recommendations of the BDAC first.

Pole attachments don't get nearly the hype of an issue like net neutrality. But the impact to broadband rollouts of what gets decided about the pole attachment process will be substantial over the next many years.

And if the fights among the BDAC members are any indication, the debate is only going to get more hostile from here

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