Pole Position

In a move that could reduce the price of high-speed Internet access, the Supreme Court rules on the use of utility poles.

Theyre everywhere we look, carrying the cables that bring us telephone service, electricity, television feeds, and Internet access. Utility poles have become part of the landscape. They line nearly every highway and side street in the country, and you pass them nearly every time you take a drive. But who ever gives them a second thought? How many realize that utility poles represent an important legal battleground, and that the laws governing them can have a significant effect on our daily lives?

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled on the use of utility poles, and its ruling could substantially reduce the price of high-speed Internet access. "Utility-pole law may seem like an esoteric issue," says Mark Johnson, a telecommunications lawyer with Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal in New York, "but its of huge importance."

Any company wishing to use a utility pole to run cable from one place to another must pay a fee to the entity that owns the pole. Since the poles are essential to the operation of any business that needs to run cables to homes or offices, companies that own the poles could easily charge extremely high prices for these pole attachments. For this reason, the Pole Attachment Act requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) "to set reasonable rates, terms, and conditions for certain attachments to telephone and electric poles." The interpretation of the term pole is very broad and includes any infrastructure used to convey cable. "Pole attachments also cover getting access to underground conduits," says Johnson.

In its original form, the Pole Attachment Act was very clear in stating that the FCC should limit how much a utility could charge a company using the utilitys poles to carry a cable television feed. But there was some question as to whether prices could be controlled when cables were being used for Internet access. According to Johnson, "The utilities have been saying the FCC only has the power to determine what they can charge for video cable, but not for Internet-access cable."

When setting prices for pole attachments involving Internet access, utilities were ignoring FCC regulations. "Internet access uses the same wire, whether its coaxial cable or optical fiber, thats used to distribute the television video signals," continues Johnson, "but even though utilities were charging $5 to use a pole for video, they were charging $35 to use the pole for Internet access."

Last Monday, the Supreme Court put a stop to such practices. Ruling on the case National Cable & Telecommunications Association Inc. versus Gulf Power Company, the Court decided that the Pole Attachment Act applied to any type of cable. "Theyve said that the FCC has the power to regulate pole attachments, regardless of what kind of services are being carried across the wire," says Johnson.

Soon, the FCC will set down such regulations and the cable companies wont have to pay nearly as much as they currently do to attach an Internet cable to a utility pole. "Theyll bring the price down to a single-digit number—$5, $6, $8, something like that—well below the $35 or so some of the electric companies were trying to charge for the Internet-access side of it."

In the end, this means people could be paying less for high-speed Internet access. Also, if the FCC begins regulating such pole attachments, far more companies could be willing to offer Internet access, increasing competition.