Outdated utility pole rules may threaten NH’s broadband expansion plans

Current regulations could hamper timely widening of connectivity in rural areas

Utiity Pole Laconia

New Hampshire currently ranks 33rd in the nation for broadband access, with over 45,000 Granite Staters still unconnected. That’s nearly 5 percent of all residents who still lack the connectivity needed to access digital learning, commerce, telehealth and government service opportunities to thrive in the 21st century. Fortunately, both New Hampshire’s public and private sector leaders have taken critical steps toward bridging the state’s digital divide and expanding broadband access to every corner of the state.

The recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $65 billion invested in broadband, which will support deployment in unserved areas, help low-income families purchase broadband services, and increase digital literacy throughout the country. The bill received support from New Hampshire’s entire congressional delegation, with “aye” votes from Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan and Representatives Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster.

This federal funding complements the $25 million in FCC broadband grant funding already awarded to providers in the state through the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction program – a program that also promises to expand broadband access to those currently unserved homes and small businesses in the state.

We can all agree that every valuable federal dollar invested in broadband expansion should be maximized so that we can achieve full connectivity across not only New Hampshire, but the entire country. Unfortunately, counterproductive, inefficient and outdated utility pole regulations currently jeopardize the ability of this funding to speed broadband connectivity to all Americans and deliver economic gains for New Hampshirites.

A new study that I co-authored with Patricia D. Kravtin finds that New Hampshire has the opportunity to benefit from up to $1.89 billion in economic gains through expanded broadband access across the state – but only if utility pole regulations are reformed.

Utility poles carry New Hampshire’s broadband infrastructure and will almost certainly determine the success or failure of the state’s efforts to bring internet connectivity to all.  That’s because broadband infrastructure must be attached to these poles – most often owned by utility companies, municipalities or cooperatives – before service can reach homes and small businesses. This means utility pole owners have what in economics is referred to as significant and concentrated market power, which they can use to impose unnecessary delays and economically infeasible costs onto pole attachment procedures.

These delays and costs have negatively impacted rural communities in New Hampshire in particular, where it can take up to 10 poles to connect a single household or small business. That puts broadband providers at the mercy of pole owners’ lengthy timetables, uncertain approvals, high permitting fees and arbitrarily burdensome requirements.

Policymakers, however, have the timely opportunity to reform pole attachment policies and ensure that broadband deployment is expedited to reach all of New Hampshire. The good news is, New Hampshire has recently taken steps in the right direction, such as proposing one-touch make-ready rules that are nearly identical to FCC rules. Still, further commonsense reforms can be adopted to speed broadband deployment.

As recommended in my study with Dr. Kravtin, improved policies can require equitable cost-sharing between pole owners and broadband providers, expedite dispute resolution processes and regulate the timely review of pole permits. In addition to these efforts, policymakers could also continue to direct already committed public funds to “utility pole relief” grant programs designed to offset high overhead costs to broadband providers.

New Hampshire is well-positioned to ensure full connectivity throughout the state. Our policymakers must now guarantee that inhibitory pole access rules don’t stand in the way of making that goal a reality.

Edward J. Lopez is professor of economics and director of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise at Western Carolina University.

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