Consumers today expect high-speed access to content, anytime, anywhere. We often take for granted the ability to leave home, head to work, and travel to many cities, or even across the country, without losing the ability to access high-speed Internet service. But in many cities, there is only one provider offering broadband Internet, and for some consumers, that provider’s speeds are inadequate and the prices are prohibitively expensive. New broadband entrants seek to challenge incumbent providers by introducing innovative services, higher speeds, and competition to local markets. However, there are many barriers preventing competitive providers from doing so.
At the INCOMPAS Policy Summit 2017, representatives from Google Fiber, Lumos Networks, FirstLight Fiber, and Rocket Fiber came together to discuss obstacles competitive broadband providers face and how to expedite the deployment. No matter whether their company was built upon 120 year old ILEC networks, or was a 2-year old start-up company from Detroit, panelists across the board agreed that local and municipal governments, utilities, and other city-specific organizations present the biggest challenges to broadband deployment.
As panelists explained, broadband providers must work with each individual utility pole owner and each entity using that pole before proceeding with deployment. Each entity—including utilities and incumbent telecom providers—usually takes 60 days to reach an agreement with a new provider. Incumbent telecom providers are incentivized to protect the significant investments they have made to deploy their networks and install equipment to provide optimal coverage for their customers in each city. Utilities are similarly hesitant to allow third parties to relocate their equipment risking damage or incorrect re-installation. Additionally, landlords of apartment buildings in cities across the country often have long-standing agreements with incumbent cable providers, which they must consider before giving competitive providers access to their buildings. It is no wonder that even companies like Google struggle to deploy broadband to new cities.
Competitive providers must balance the concerns of incumbents in each city as well as the need for expedient deployment. Deployment delays have ripple effects. For one, the uncertainty surrounding timelines for local deployments chills investment and hinders the ability of operators to efficiently allocate resources when employees, time, and money are held up by negotiations in certain localities. The delay of broadband delivery also causes consumers to blame the provider, even when the barriers to timely deployment may be completely beyond the provider’s control. Further, consumers in areas that lack viable broadband options remain stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide and are denied the many benefits high-speed Internet access delivers to communities.
To address these issues, some cities have adopted “One Touch-Make Ready” laws, which would allow new broadband entrants to move the equipment installed on utility poles by other companies, eliminating the “middle man” and potentially expediting broadband entry and deployment. However, by allowing third parties to move and reinstall equipment, the laws may enable contractors to damage or incorrectly install the equipment of the utility or incumbent provider, putting the investments and service quality of those providers at risk. Incumbent providers have already sued several cities, including Nashville and Louisville, in an effort to strike down the laws. In contrast, panelists applauded the rules, and reported that local town halls have been flooded with residents in favor of One Touch-Make Ready laws. Further, several federal agencies and communities across the country have also supported these laws. In relation to the Louisville suit, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued a statement last fall that the pole attachment ordinance does not conflict with federal regulations, and the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission in favor of the laws. In February 2017, the Nashville Electric Service struck a deal with Google Fiber and dismissed the lawsuit it had filed against the One Touch-Make Ready policy. Competitive providers were cautiously optimistic that the laws will be upheld in other cities as well.
In addition, panelists proposed a “Dig Smart” policy to expedite deployment. Under this approach, when constructing or repairing a road or highway, cities would install a conduit for broadband cable or fiber, which would be available for rent to broadband entrants. By opening a new right-of-way to incumbent and competitive providers alike, panelists explained that cities can help level the playing field and remove barriers to deployment.
The panelists urged the new leadership at the FCC, and cities across the nation, to embrace One Touch-Make Ready and “Dig Smart” policies to bring high-speed broadband to consumers everywhere. The panelists explained that these reforms would not only decrease the time and costs of deployment, enabling providers to reach new cities and service areas, but also would help ensure that the United States remains competitive with other countries that are increasingly deploying high-speed broadband. While there is widespread agreement that promoting nationwide deployment of high-speed broadband is good policy, it is unclear whether state or Federal leaders will adopt One Touch-Make Ready or Dig Smart policies to implement it. The competitive broadband agenda promises to be a key issue to watch going forward.