Utility Pole Attachments Swept Up in Net Neutrality Fights

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Commissioners voted Tuesday on Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to resolve outstanding questions about the agency’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality regulations. A federal appeals court in 2019 mostly upheld the rollback of previous net neutrality regulations that prevented broadband providers from blocking and throttling internet traffic. But the court told the Commission to prove that it considered the impact to pole attachments, public safety and low-income phone subsidies.

The item that responds to the court passed after nearly an hour of tense debate, with Republicans wholly in support and Democrats approving in part and disagreeing in part. Commissioner Brendan Carr said providers stepped up to the advent of COVID, in which internet providers saw “a 30 percent spike” in network traffic. That’s about two-years’ worth of traffic growth” put on the network overnight, he explained. He called it “the ultimate stress test.”

Carr and Pai compared that to countries in Europe that took a more heavy-handed approach to internet regulation. COVID stretched those networks and also China’s. Both “strained to maintain quality and speed,” said Carr.  

FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks disagreed that the changes did no harm to public safety. Rosenworcel also said the changes took away the rights of new broadband providers to gain access to utility poles. “This is a big deal. Broadband is the infrastructure of the future.”

Starks agreed “ISPs have struggled to build out their networks without attaching to utility poles. Cable and telecom remain protected, but the decision to leave broadband-only services without FCC recourse leaves them at a disadvantage.” The changes hurt providers that don’t want to bundle their broadband offerings with phone or cable, according to Starks.

Starks also disagreed with Republican colleagues who said the agency’s relaxation of certain rules spurred telecom infrastructure investment. “Let’s be real,” said Starks. Infrastructure investment was not based on net neutrality changes, but rather, “part of long-term business cycles.”

Pai said that in 2017, he, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and Carr, “focused on the facts and the law, and we did the right thing. The internet economy in the United States is stronger than ever. For example, since we adopted the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, averaged fixed broadband download speeds in the United States have more than doubled.”

But on a personal level, that vote was tough, said Pai as he recalled that the meeting was disrupted by a bomb threat, and more menaces followed. He and his Republican colleagues “were harassed at our homes. Our relatives were harangued at three in the morning with expletives and profane voicemails. In my case, plenty of nasty, racist invective came my way. My personal email account was hacked. To say the least, it was not an easy time.”

“All of this happened,” said Pai, “because opponents waged one of the most dishonest scare campaigns ever seen.” For example, Pai said, “Bernie Sanders warned this is the end of the internet as we know it.” 

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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