Sally Aman

Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment

USTelecom recently filed comments in a Federal Communications Commission proceeding focused on how to accelerate the deployment of wireline broadband infrastructure by removing barriers to investment. Overall, USTelecom supports many of the FCC’s tentative conclusions in the proposed rulemaking and believes it should move quickly to update its rules to reflect today’s competitive environment.

Reforming Pole Attachment Rules

Regulations over the rules and fees assessed on broadband providers to attach their equipment to utility poles has been a major focus of attention for the last several years because it has a direct impact on the costs of providing and expanding high-speed internet availability.

In 2011, the FCC adopted a pole attachment order which “took positive steps towards reforming pole attachment rates in a more equitable and positive way,” USTelecom said in comments to the agency, adding that “further reforms are necessary to ensure the presence of greater rate parity among all categories of broadband providers.” Although it revisited the issue again four years later, in an effort to harmonize the rate that cable and telecom service providers pay to utility pole owners, ILECs could not avail themselves of that rate. Instead, ILECs remained subject to the FCC’s case-by-case complaint process if they believed a particular rate, term or condition was unjust or unreasonable.

But even with the Commission’s 2011 and 2015 reforms, “the general rate structure for pole attachment rates remains in a silo-based framework that does not adequately address the realities of today’s converged broadband marketplace,” USTelecom said in its comments. “While cable and telecommunications attachers benefit from a more uniform attachment rate under the 2011 and 2015 orders, [incumbent carriers] remain at an artificial regulatory pricing disadvantage regarding access to essential critical infrastructure.”

USTelecom also suggested the FCC address difficulties encountered by broadband providers in accessing poles, ducts, conduits, and rights-of-way owned by parties such as municipalities and electric cooperatives.  Those access barriers are “increasingly problematic and acute” for broadband providers. USTelecom discussed at length the recent decision by the Tennessee Valley Authority to adopt pole attachment rates that are several times those that are federally regulated. Given the TVA’s seven-state service territory that is predominantly rural, USTelecom said its decision would “have a broad and negative impact on millions of consumers across multiple states.”

Expediting the Retirement of Copper Lines

Legacy networks that rely on copper  “are fast becoming relics, serving fewer and fewer telecommunications users as newer broadband services and technologies systematically replace them,” USTelecom said in its comments, adding that there is “little to be gained by maintaining or adopting rules that make it harder for providers to make a timely transition.”

Generally, USTelecom supports the repeal of 2015 rules that required providers to waste resources on legacy infrastructure that provided very little benefit for consumers. Returning to the previous process of short-term network change notification rules also makes sense, USTelecom said. “The frequency and prevalence of network changes, primarily in the form of migration from copper to fiber, make for a very different marketplace than when the Commission last revisited its network change rules in 2004,” USTelecom said. About 84% of Americans won’t be affected by any future rules adopted to address copper retirement because they’ve already transitioned to more modern networks.

Streamlining the Service Discontinuance Process

By speeding the transition to modern, IP-based networks by eliminating regulations that unreasonably hamper the ability of incumbent telecos to replace and upgrade their legacy networks, the FCC also sets the stage for the provision of newer, modern services over upgraded fiber and IP-based networks. Part of those efforts must include streamlining the process of discontinuing legacy services.

“Requiring ‘exit approval’ may have made sense decades ago at a time when [incumbent telecom providers] held telephone monopolies, there was no or nascent wireless service, and cable providers only offered video services,” USTelecom wrote in its comments. “But that is no longer the case. Widespread competition for voice and data services warrants a different regulatory approach to govern providers that must seek approval to discontinue legacy services if the goal is to make sure they continue to invest in broadband infrastructure.”