November 15, 2019
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FCC’s decision on net neutrality raises question for Maine utilities

Brian Swartz | BDN
Brian Swartz | BDN
Two utility poles can be seen in Bangor in this February 2012 file photo.

Net neutrality was the big focus of new Federal Communications Commission rules approved Thursday, but the commission’s decision also gives new license to Internet providers to gain access to telephone poles and other telecommunications infrastructure.

In particular, the new rules would require companies that own utility poles and rights-of-way to provide Internet companies “fair access” to that infrastructure.

In Maine, that access is governed by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

We’re talking about “reverse pre-emption.” Some states go with the FCC rules. Some, such as Maine, appoint their own public utilities regulators that can make up other rules for circumstances such as who can connect to telephone poles.

And in Maine, only telephone companies, statewide fiber developer Maine Fiber Co. and the University of Maine have the ability to ask utility pole owners such as FairPoint or Central Maine Power Co. to connect. That costs about $15 to $20 per pole, according to Dwight Allison, CEO of Maine Fiber.

For his company, which built the statewide Three Ring Binder fiber-optic cable network, that adds up to about $500,000 per year for about 31,000 pole attachments that the company was able to put up only after a four-month battle in the Legislature to win a special classification.

The company needed special designation to put up its fiber because it does not provide Internet or phone service, but merely leases its cable to anyone who wants to use it.

Those connection rules could be up for discussion. Maine Public Advocate Tim Schneider said that his office is “considering having the PUC look at their pole attachment rules” and that the issue could be deliberated in the Legislature this session, as lawmakers are expected to review about 35 bills dealing with broadband expansion.

“Maine’s pole attachment rules lag the federal rules, which have been optimized to promote broadband,” Schneider said, speaking about rules in effect before the FCC’s vote Thursday.

The FCC order due out in several weeks will provide updated guidance on how Internet providers can request connections to existing poles and rights-of-way.

Harry Lanphear, spokesman for the PUC, said that until state regulators have read the full federal order, he can’t comment on the implications for Maine.

What’s in it for municipalities considering broadband? Cities or towns that want to build out their own networks have to solicit the services of a certified local exchange carrier (a phone company) to build a network for them.

That’s because such companies have the ability to request space on telephone poles owned by utilities such as FairPoint Communications or Central Maine Power Co., which own most of the telephone poles in Maine.

Broadening the definition of who can connect could pave the way for smaller Internet carriers to enter the market or possibly change the hurdles cities and towns face in building their own networks on existing infrastructure.

And amid debate in Maine, the FCC spoke out in favor of municipal broadband. Separate from its net neutrality decision, the FCC delivered a specific victory to advocates for municipal broadband, which will likely get challenged in court alongside the net neutrality vote.

The FCC voted to override state-level restrictions on municipal broadband projects competing with existing utilities in Tennessee and North Carolina, which could apply to about 21 other states that have restrictions on community broadband services.

That issue has emerged in Maine as incumbent Internet provider Time Warner has lobbied against state and municipal support for building out fiber-optic networks in areas where networks — like its own — already exist.

 



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