California’s telecom right of way rules are detailed but not tidy

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I was asked yesterday about California’s public right of way (ROW) rules, as they apply to telecoms companies. There’s no one stop handbook that I know of (but if anyone else does, please chime in). The rules are fluid, and are mostly determined by CPUC decisions, with some court rulings thrown in.

In California, it starts with section 7901 of the public utilities code

Telegraph or telephone corporations may construct lines of telegraph or telephone lines along and upon any public road or highway, along or across any of the waters or lands within this State, and may erect poles, posts, piers, or abutments for supporting the insulators, wires, and other necessary fixtures of their lines, in such manner and at such points as not to incommode the public use of the road or highway or interrupt the navigation of the waters.

That’s interpreted to mean that local agencies can’t prohibit or charge a fee – either one-time or ongoing rents – for ROW use. Local agencies can regulate “time, place and manner” of access and charge one time permit fees based on processing costs, but can’t block use.

The fundamental CPUC decision setting the rules was issued in 1998. It’s been modified, directly and indirectly, many times since. The most recent changes were in 2016 to explicitly include mobile carriers and allow them to attach wireless facilities to utility poles, and last month to extend the same privilege to wireline telephone companies. In 2015, the commission narrowed the gap between broadband providers and traditional telephone and cable companies in a pair of rulings, one involving Google Fiber and the other a California Advanced Services Fund subsidy for a fiber to the home project.

Typically, the text of new decisions summarise the current state of the rules, and are a good starting point for figuring what’s what.

There’s also a case pending at the California supreme court – T-Mobile vs. City and County of San Francisco – regarding aesthetic standards. It’s a challenge to an appeals court ruling that allowed San Francisco to regulate wireless facilities on aesthetic grounds, up to a point.

The documents are all posted here:

Conduit, right of way, pole attachment, dark fiber and franchise agreement documents

I’ll update that page as I get new information.