Utility poles and underground conduit could shift from the tight control of a handful of monopoly electric and telecoms companies to a more broadly managed public resource in California. Yesterday, the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously decided to require incumbent telecoms companies to disclose where their middle fiber networks go and how to connect to them, and to begin the process of writing rules to make it easier for competitors to gain access to poles, conduit and other infrastructure that’s installed in the public right of way.
The contrast between California’s highly competitive, high tech economy and the stone age chokepoints that stand in its way are stark, as CPUC president Michael Picker pointed out before the vote…
I am just stunned that after three years here, after many, many, many conversations on new technologies and very glamorous kinds of approaches to decarbonising the state’s economy, we’re facing a fierce battle over access to probably one of the simplest and the least nimble parts of our infrastructure, which is poles and conduits under the ground. Who would have thought we would be spending this much time as people contest for access to the common wooden pole.
By taking on incumbents’ control over scarce telecommunications infrastructure and the way it’s used to block competition, the CPUC is targeting the general lack of telecoms competition in California, and in particular the broadband market failure here. The CPUC’s formal declaration that California’s broadband market is highly concentrated – a term of art that means monopoly or near monopoly control over retail access services – can and apparently will be the basis for taking meaningful action. Yesterday’s decision is the first step.
It won’t be an easy step. Several commissioners noted the fierce legal fight that telephone and cable companies waged in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart the investigation that led to the decision. It’s a safe bet that they’ll continue their scorched earth opposition as the CPUC implements it. But if independent broadband providers can’t get access to poles and conduit, or reasonable middle mile connectivity or wholesale last mile facilities, then they can’t compete. It’s that simple.