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LD 406 - Allows Critical Updates to Maine's Aging Pole Attachment Regulation

Maine’s 128th Legislature has put forward a number of telecommunications and broadband related bills again this year, one of which is LD 406.  Introduced by Senator Woodward of York and co-sponsored by Representative Berry of Bowdoinham and President Thibodeau of Waldo, this bill will open the door to some strategic changes in the utility pole attachment process and is long overdue for Maine. 

It’s a pretty mundane topic, pole attachment.  But any party looking to build physical network in the state will need to attach to poles, typically by putting up a fiber optic cable.  Burying optical cable underground is impractical due to the amount of ledge under our feet and it’s also significantly more costly.  So any competitive networks in the state are using cables attached to the utility poles in our public right of ways – mostly along public roads.   Who owns the poles?  Mostly the incumbent local power company and the incumbent local phone company.  How do other companies like cable TV and competitive ISPs and MFC attach cable to those poles?  They negotiate a pole attachment agreement (MFC has over 30 of these) and then apply to the pole-owning utilities for a license to attach a cable to one or more poles.  

Then the fun begins.  Within 30 days the applicant usually receives a cost estimate from the pole owners.  This estimate shows the cost for the pole owner to move cables around to make enough space on the pole for a new cable – a slow and very expensive process called ‘make-ready’.  It also lists the other parties already attached to the pole and indicates where they need to move in order to make space for the applicant’s new cable.   The applicant pays the estimated make-ready costs to the pole owners and a clock counts down a (4) month interval for the pole owners to complete their work.   Concurrently, the applicant (not the pole owner) has to contact the other parties already attached to the poles and get them to move their cables, in the right sequence and to the right space on the pole.  The pole owners, cable company, and various ISPs that need to re-arrange their cables each arrange for their own workers or contractors to go out to each pole to do this work.  Keystone cops come to mind? 

Once the make-ready work is done the applicant can send out a crew to put up the new cable, a relatively quick and easy process assuming there is not too much traffic control involved.  MFC can typically construct a mile of new fiber cable in 2 days or less.   Once the cable is up and in service, the applicant pays recurring annual license fees.  For MFC this is our single largest operating expense.  We are attached to about 31,000 poles in Maine. 

LD 406 will clarify the types of providers that can attach to poles, modernizing the current law, which is over 20 years old and did not contemplate ISPs, or dark fiber providers.  LD 406 will also empower the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) to set the terms conditions and rates for parties seeking pole attachments.  The MPUC, as an informed but neutral party, is the right organization to take this on.  There is an inherent conflict of interest if the pole owning utilities are left to negotiate terms and rates with their competitors.   There are many approaches to pole attachment reform, ranging from simply adopting the FCC regulations (shorter timeframes and expedited make-ready intervals) to ‘One-Touch’ make ready (a single contractor does all the make-ready work), to designating a single party as the pole administrator for the entire state (as Connecticut did recently).   We think the MPUC is in the best position to ensure pole owners, many of whom are competitors to new attachment seekers, do no practical or economic harm to companies that seek to build competitive fiber networks in Maine.