Over the past couple of months, I have spent lots of time talking to service providers, engineering firms, contractors, and fiber and other equipment vendors about communications network builds. What’s good? Business is growing (if not booming) and networks throughout the country are being constructed and upgraded. What’s bad? Not enough qualified workers and still so many barriers to deployments. So, what can be done about these barriers?
Over the past several years, the FCC has sought to facilitate fiber and 5G builds by issuing decisions that help speed state and local permitting decisions and ensure permitting costs are reasonable. But, there’s still a lot of friction in the system. Some fiber providers are going underground because they face delays or high costs in getting access to poles. Wireless providers, of course, do not have this option; they are engaged in hand to hand combat with pole owners. And, while providers generally have good relations with government permitting authorities, there are still too many instances where fights break out. And, of course, there are constant battles with owners of private rights-of-way, like railroad crossings, where the disputes seem endless. All of this friction is using up capital that can be invested in other areas. What then can be done?
Let’s face it, in most instances, providers and entities controlling essential infrastructure cannot get a divorce. They have to live with each other, especially where there are no options for a network build. Further, when one party controls a key asset, there is not an equal balance of power that would tend to lead to a reasonable commercial agreement. Instead, the party in the “cat bird’s seat” can be expected to extract additional rents. However, that is to be expected in the marketplace and should not be viewed as a problem, except where, as with communications networks, the public interest is at stake. The federal government, after all, is charged in the constitution with promoting interstate commerce and free speech and has a duty to establish rights and responsibilities to forward these objectives.
The US Government is getting involved
For years, the FCC has been serious about advancing these goals, especially recently with its pole attachment, public rights-of-way, and local cable franchising decisions. But, while the FCC can successfully establish general rights and responsibilities, it cannot develop solutions for all possible problems that might crop up. Disputes then regularly occur, and the FCC and the courts step in to enforce the law, but that simply takes too long to satisfy commercial needs. What is needed is an expedited dispute resolution process. The FCC adopted such a process, although temporarily, to address program access complaints against Comcast, and AT&T voluntarily agreed to a similar temporary process. But, is it time to establish more ways to settle disputes in a commercially reasonable manner and time frame? If we do not, network builds will continue to be delayed, customers will go without advanced services, and our international competitiveness will suffer.
Want to read more from Tom?
Check out the Regulatory Updates perspectives page, where we share all the latest regulatory news that impacts service providers.