Judge Backs AT&T, Comcast Nuisance Suit Against Google Fiber In Nashville

from the why-we-can't-have-nice-things dept

There's numerous methods incumbent ISPs use to keep broadband competition at bay, from buying protectionist state laws to a steady supply of revolving door regulators and lobbyists with a vested interest in protecting the status quo. This regulatory capture goes a long way toward explaining why Americans pay more money for slower broadband than most developed nations. Keeping this dysfunction intact despite a growing resentment from America's under-served and over-charged broadband consumers isn't easy, and has required decades of yeoman's work on the part of entrenched duopolies and their lobbyists.

Case in point: Google Fiber recently tried to build new fiber networks in a large number of cities like Nashville and Louisville, but ran face first into an antiquated utility pole attachment process. As it stands, when a new competitor tries to enter a market, it needs to contact each individual ISP to have them move their own utility pole gear. This convoluted and bureaucratic process can take months, and incumbent ISPs (which often own the poles in question) often slow things down even further by intentionally dragging their feet.

So in cities like Nashville and Louisville, Google Fiber and other competitors have pushed for so-called "one touch make ready" utility pole reform. These reforms let a licensed and insured contractor move any ISP's pole-mounted gear if necessary (usually a matter of inches), as long as the ISP is notified in advance and the contractor pays for any damages. Under these regulatory reforms, the pole attachment process can be reduced from six months or more to just a month or so -- dramatically speeding up fiber deployment. ISPs like Verizon (in part because Google Fiber isn't encroaching on their East Coast turf) have supported the changes.

But because this would accelerate competitor broadband deployments as well, incumbent ISPs like AT&T, Comcast and Charter Spectrum did what they do best: they filed nuisance lawsuits against both Nashville and Louisville -- claiming they'd exceeded their legal authority in updating the rules. The companies proclaim they're simply concerned about the potential damage to their lines (ignored is the fact that the contractors doing the work are often the same people employed by ISPs), but the lawsuits are driven by one thing: fear of competition.

In Louisville this tactic didn't work so well, with a Judge ruling that the city was perfectly within its legal rights to manage the city's utility poles. ISPs had claimed that these cities' authority was over-ridden by FCC rules, though even the FCC itself backed Google Fiber and the cities in this fight (obviously this position, like most pro-competitive policies, were reversed when Trump appointed Ajit Pai to head the FCC last fall).

In Nashville however those same ISPs last week scored a major victory on the news that a Judge has backed incumbent ISP claims that the city did not have jurisdiction over utility poles -- and that the policy change violates contract law. Google Fiber, for its part, says it's reviewing the ruling:

"We're reviewing today's court ruling to understand its potential impact on our build in Nashville," a Google spokesperson said. "We have made significant progress with new innovative deployment techniques in some areas of the city, but access to poles remains an important issue where underground deployment is not a possibility."

There's several reasons Google Fiber announced last fall that it was pivoting toward wireless/fiber hybrid deployments. One was the high cost and slow pace of fiber deployment, but another was the kind of legal and regulatory roadblocks being erected by the likes of AT&T, Charter and Comcast, who are utterly terrified at the faintest specter of competition disrupting their all-too-cozy markets. Google Fiber has managed to avoid some of these obstacles via technologies like microtrenching, but the incumbent ISP goal of slowing the rise of competition has proven successful overall.

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Filed Under: broadband, competition, google fiber, nashville, one touch make ready, utility poles
Companies: at&t, c harter, comcast, google

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  1. icon
    TKnarr (profile), 28 Nov 2017 @ 12:46pm


    One thing municipalities might do is turn to right-of-way leases. The ISPs may own the poles, but the city or county usually owns the majority of the rights-of-way those poles sit on and leases access to it to the various utilities that need poles. They should look at the terms of those leases with an eye towards requirements for shared access that don't depend on local or state laws to enforce. If there aren't any suitable terms, the next time the lease comes up for renewal terms requiring utilities perform all actions needed for shared access within 30 days of the request (with penalties involving either the requesting party being able to perform the work themselves or the utility that failed to get things done losing it's lease) should be added and made non-negotiable. Then the FCC's out of the picture because it's remit doesn't extend to regulating the terms cities and counties must lease access to real estate under.

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