In addition to high costs and the slow pace of digging up streets, one of the reasons Google Fiber is contemplating a pivot from fiber to next-gen wireless broadband is the boring old utility pole. As it stands now, new market competitors often have to navigate an archaic, elaborate and expensive process to attach fiber to poles. Quite often, attaching fiber requires having any other ISPs in the area notified in writing, then waiting for each one to move their own equipment piecemeal, one of several bureaucratic processes incumbents have long abused to slow down the arrival of new competitors.
When Google Fiber began more seriously deploying fiber, it proposed new "one touch make ready rules" in many municipalities. Under these revised rules, a licensed, insured third-party contractor is allowed to move any equipment on utility poles with owner approval. In many instances, these contractors are the very same ones used by large ISPs themselves. The regulatory reform is estimated to streamline the pole attachment process by six months to a year.
But because this regulatory reform would make it easier for broadband competitors to come to market, large ISPs like AT&T, Comcast and Charter (Spectrum) decided to sue cities like Louisville and Nashville for proposing such reforms. Of course these regional mono/duopolies can't admit they're predominately motivated by anti-competitive reasons, so they've tried to argue they're simply worried that the reform will cause rampant outages (again, these are licensed, insured contractors already employed by many ISPs). Charter even tried to claim the reforms violated its First Amendment rights.
But something shifted this week in this long-standing, if under-noticed and important debate. Verizon has decided to buck AT&T and Comcast, and has published a blog post throwing its full-throated support behind Google's one touch utility pole reform (though you'll note they're careful not to mention their arch-nemisis Google by name). Verizon is quick to highlight the often-absurd bureaucracy at the heart of this process:
Under the current system, a new attacher must contact a pole owner to get permission to attach, wait for a survey, and then, wait some more as each existing attacher moves or adjusts their attachments – a process called “make-ready” (literally, making-the-pole-ready for the new attachment). Right now, this often proceeds sequentially, with multiple reviews and truck rolls for each of the providers already attached to the pole. It can take six months to a year – and piles of paperwork – to get a new attachment approved and placed on a pole.
Having deployed $25 billion or so in fiber to the home, the company proceeds to note that it, if anyone, should know a little something about this process. As such, it notes that a streamlined pole attachment process would bring a lot of efficiency to the entire affair, helping to speed up broadband deployment nationwide:
Instead of the current ungainly process, there would be one truck roll to make all of the adjustments to existing attachments and to add the new attachment. Just one disruption to traffic instead of multiple trucks. And to care for legitimate concerns about protecting networks and ensuring safety, the FCC could limit participation to qualified, licensed contractors who are approved by pole-owners, agree to abide by all applicable safety standards, and who, along with the new attacher, will indemnify pole owners and existing attachers if things go wrong.
The question of the hour is: why isn't Verizon siding with AT&T, Comcast and Charter out of a desire to protect itself from added fixed-line broadband competition? Verizon no longer cares about fixed-line broadband competition. As we've long noted, Verizon's FiOS expansion is all but frozen, and it's been selling off its unwanted fixed-line customers and networks piecemeal. Verizon's plan now is to gobble up AOL and Yahoo, and become an advertising and media company like Google -- but one that controls the conduit and the message via its nationwide wireless network.
And most of the current hotbeds for fiber deployment (pretty much everywhere but Verizon's territory in the Northeast) won't impact Verizon's remaining fixed-line infrastructure. But these fiber deployments outside of Verizon's territory will help fuel Verizon's fifth-generation (5G) expansion plans, which is why, for once, Verizon is actually on the right side of the issues -- instead of trying to keep the bureaucratic status quo intact.