Utility Poles: Key to Rural High-Speed Broadband Deployment & Closing the Digital Divide in North Carolina
Even as we gain an upper hand on the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgent need to ensure that all North Carolinians have access to reliable, high-speed broadband remains. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that nearly 472,000 North Carolinians, mostly in rural areas, still live on the wrong side of the digital divide. North Carolina has the second highest rural population in the country, making it imperative to get broadband to these communities, without delay. Yet, existing obstacles continue to delay broadband expansion to every corner of the state.
Access to utility poles poses one of the most significant threats to deployment. Utility poles form the backbone of North Carolina’s broadband infrastructure. These poles – oftentimes owned by municipal and electric member cooperatives – lack clear and fair attachment rules, which can lead to significant delays and additional costs for providers looking to expand broadband infrastructure. In fact, the absence of adequate rules can delay buildout up to a year or more. One of the greatest sources of delay comes from the lack of adequate regulations around pole replacements and the allocation of costs between utilities and broadband providers.
Fortunately, State Representative Jason Saine (R-97) and State Senator Ralph Hise (R-47) have taken the lead on this issue by filing companion measures HB 815 and SB 689 to establish much-needed regulatory oversight related to municipal and cooperative utility poles attachments and replacements. Their bills directly aim to reduce the delays and extraordinary costs currently associated with attaching new broadband equipment to these municipal and electric member cooperative owned poles. They require pole owners to adhere to a reasonable timeline and to fairly allocate any pole attachment-associated costs.
The legislation would also create a streamlined mechanism for the North Carolina Utilities Commission to resolve disputes, preventing unnecessary broadband deployment delays in the future. These bills would bolster and help ensure that the public and private capital investments included in the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) broadband grant program are fully maximized to connect every North Carolinian – regardless of where they live.
North Carolina’s lawmakers have a real opportunity this legislative session to take a significant step toward connecting all North Carolinians by enacting HB 815 and SB 689.