A realization has been growing for the last few years that fast, reliable and affordable internet access is a necessity for society to grow and prosper. At the national level, this has led to bipartisan support for measures that promote quality internet access to all citizens, particularly in areas that lack it today, such as Maine. One of the measures undertaken is to update old regulations that hinder the deployment of fiber broadband, which is the fastest and most reliable form of broadband. The Federal Communications Commission convened a federal, state and industry task force to formulate new regulations for utility pole attachments. Pole attachments are required for fiber to be strung on the utility poles seen up and down public rights of way. A couple of years ago the FCC rules went into effect in the majority of states, but not in Maine. Maine has chosen to regulate pole attachments under its own state law, so the FCC rules do not directly apply.

The Maine PUC is nearly done making rules meant to promote broadband growth, using as a model FCC rule changes that are focused on taking away the power of legacy telephone, power and cable companies to block or slow new network providers from attaching fiber to existing poles. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal, File

The FCC rule changes are focused on taking away the power of the incumbents – legacy telephone, power and cable companies, which block or slow new network providers from attaching fiber to existing poles. In the 30 states where the new rules are now active, these new rules have lowered the cost and sped up the progress of rolling out new fiber networks.

Maine doesn’t use the FCC rules and does not automatically enjoy the advantages those rules bring. In Maine there is a widespread (and bipartisan) recognition that we also have a problem with incumbents hindering new entrants. A few years ago the Legislature passed a law requiring the Maine Public Utilities Commission to update our rules to promote broadband growth. The PUC has been working diligently on the problem, using the FCC rules as a model.  Rulemaking that has lasted several years is now nearing completion.

Unfortunately, as shown by their public filings in the rulemaking, the telephone, cable and power companies are attempting to weaken the Maine rules to make them less favorable than the FCC rules that most states use. In the case of the cable companies, they are trying to get new abilities to block competitors – abilities they don’t have either under the FCC rules or under Maine’s old rules. Not only would these changes make it more expensive and slower to build fiber networks, but the timing of actually getting to build would also become uncertain because the incumbents would have the ability to arbitrarily block progress in building fiber networks.

The incumbents are making the same arguments the FCC explicitly rejected. The difference is that the FCC is a federal agency with a large budget and staff. Its power is a match for large corporations. When the same corporations come to Maine, where our PUC staff is a fraction of the size of the FCC’s, there is a real power differential.

This creates a dangerous situation. If Maine’s rules are significantly less favorable to new networks than the rules used by most states, not only will it take longer and be more expensive to get the networks we need, but investment also will flow to other rural states before it flows to us, if it ever even comes to us. Investors will favor states where it is cheaper, faster and more certain to build.

All the users of broadband – businesses and schools, residents and hospitals, government and churches – benefit from faster, more reliable and more affordable networks. The only people who don’t are the incumbents selling via legacy networks. We hope the Maine PUC will be able to fashion rules that are as least as good as those in most states so that Maine is not at a disadvantage.

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