New John Locke Foundation Report Outlines Most Pressing Issues Impeding Broadband Infrastructure & Deployment in North Carolina

Federal and state government are taking promising new steps to address the need for more reliable, high-speed internet access given its importance in the fabric of our daily social and economic life. This renewed focus on broadband expansion includes direct greater resources into unserved areas nationwide to bridge the existing digital divide – including for the nearly 472,000 North Carolinians who remain without access, many of whom reside in rural, unserved parts of the state.

Just recently, through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) awarded over $166 million to nine North Carolina broadband providers to support broadband buildout to over 155,000 currently unserved locations across the state. While this is certainly welcome news, we must take the next step to ensure that broadband access is deployed in a timely manner.

A new report from the John Locke Foundation, Expanding Rural Broadband Access in North Carolina, outlines three of the most pressing issues currently impeding broadband infrastructure deployment in North Carolina that all relate to one problem – access to utility poles owned by electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities. More specifically, the report identifies the areas of concern as: “…the one-time, ‘make-ready’ charges for attaching broadband facilities, especially including pole replacement costs; the time it takes to resolve disputes over pole attachments; and also the annual rates charged for utility pole attachments.”

 To address these concerns, the report recommends three proposed reforms:

Cost Sharing

To help lower buildout costs and encourage additional broadband expansion to unserved and rural areas, broadband providers, or the “attachers”, should not be unfairly burdened with the entire cost when the purchasing and installation of a replacement pole is needed. Instead, electric cooperative and municipal electric utility pole owners should share in the cost by only having the new attaching entity responsible for the remaining net book value of the pole being replaced.

Quick Decisions

A dispute resolution process should be established by the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) to expedite pole attachment disputes that may arise between “attachers” and electric cooperative and municipal electric utility pole owners. As the report notes, “it is in the public interest to promote rapid expansion of broadband service into unserved and rural areas, which would include an accelerated resolution to pole attachment disputes.”

Consistent Formula

Annual rates charged for pole attachments vary greatly among utilities. For greater certainty and reasonableness in the process, all utility pole owners should adhere to the FCC cable rate formula for pole attachments. This requirement would create a more uniform, predictable, and certain cost environment for pole attachments and broadband expansion projects.

This legislative session, the North Carolina General Assembly has the opportunity to directly address these barriers to broadband deployment, as described by the John Locke Foundation, by reforming the currently complex and costly pole attachment process into one that is fairer, faster, and more cost-effective.

The potential result? A quicker broadband buildout process and a more fully connected North Carolina.

You can read the John Locke Foundation’s full report here.