Cable, telcos use monopoly muscle to block access to California poles

5 October 2016 by Steve Blum
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Barrier to competition.

Google still can’t get access to utility poles in the Bay Area. Whether or not it still wants it is an open question – Google closed its purchase of the wireless Internet service provider side of Webpass this week – but even if it doesn’t, the blocking action by incumbents anxious to protect monopoly markets has caught the attention of California regulators.

The California Public Utilities Commission was told last week that the club that controls pole access – the Northern California Joint Pole Association – has again rejected Google’s requests for membership and permission to use poles. Commissioner Liane Randolph had asked staff to look into it, and the report back was that a minority of association members was stalling Google’s application. That’s consistent with complaints from Google earlier this year that it was being unfairly, and perhaps illegally, blocked. The California cable industry’s lobbying front, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, took the position then that Google wasn’t really a cable company, despite a CPUC decision that said yes, it is.

Randolph said that’s a problem that needs to be fixed…

If we are going to meet the policy goals of ensuring broadband and ensuring competition and customer choice, entities are going to need to be able to attach, they’re going to need to be able to attach safely and they’re going to need to be able to attach in an expeditious manner.

Fellow commissioner Catherine Sandoval agreed, and made a pointed suggestion that perhaps it’s time for the CPUC to step in…

As somebody who’s also an anti-trust law professor, I’m really concerned about whether the rules are sufficiently pro competitive. We have a here a policy that we want to encourage competition and choice, and we expect the pole safety committees to respect and facilitate that…I would also urge the committees to also not force us to go down the enforcement route.

The commission broadened access to utility poles in the public right of way earlier this year, when it adopted uniform pricing and access rules for mobile phone companies. Since then, lobbyists for cable and independent telephone companies have asked for the same “nondiscriminatory access to public utility infrastructure”. Which would be fair, if cable and telephone companies were nondiscriminatory in the way they exercise the considerable privileges they already have.