Who knew the battle for greater access to telecommunications services would be fought on top of a utility pole?

As states move to adopt one-touch make-ready provisions, a few major telcos are fighting tooth and nail to prevent the change.

What is one-touch make-ready?

When a service provider wants to run cable along a stretch of utility poles, each telcom company already using those poles must independently select a contractor and schedule time to adjust its cables, a process known as “make-ready.” The incoming service provider requesting the make-ready would cover the sum of those costs.

In the past couple years, state legislators and newcomers to telecom have pushed for laws mandating a so-called one-touch make-ready (OTMR) process, where all the service providers using a given utility pole agree on a single contractor to move all their cables at once so new attachers can integrate much quicker and at a lower cost of entry.

Sounds sensible, right? So why are big name telecom companies preventing governments from passing laws instituting OTMR? In August, AT&T challenged Louisville Metro – a merged county government comprised of Kentucky’s largest city and Jefferson County – when it filed an ordinance to put OTMR on the books. According to court documents, AT&T argued the OTMR provisions allow prospective attachers to handle company property without its consent and possibly disrupt service, which, AT&T claims, oversteps the local government’s authority to manage public rights-of-way. It’s worth noting that AT&T also owns a majority of the utility poles in the Louisville/Jackson County area and spends millions to maintain them. The defendants, however, disagree and assert its management of make-ready as valid.

Not an altogether illegitimate concern, certainly, but it does not outweigh the problems with the traditional make-ready process, especially considering AT&T, as well as other major service providers who have fought against OTMR, stand to benefit from a better make-ready process.

So what are the problems with the make-ready process as is?

1. Obvious inefficiencies

There’s no denying the make-ready process is in need of some optimization. Depending on the number of attached service providers on any given system of utility poles, the traditional make-ready process can take several months, even when the system works fluidly. By unifying multiple attachment appointments into OTMR systems approved by municipal or state governments, a single service call can accommodate multiple CSPs and save oodles of money for attachers.

2. Anticompetitive undertones

When entrenched megaproviders defend inefficient processes that unnecessarily prevent new-to-market providers with innovative offerings from expanding their reaches, the economically minded start asking questions about antitrust violations. FierceTelecom speculated that Google Fiber’s commercially attractive proposed 1-Gbps service speeds for $70 could be the impetus behind why broadband incumbents AT&T and Comcast fight OTMR laws.

But let’s take tech titan Google out of the equation. Make-ready processes today prevent small service providers from entering the telecom market due to the related expenses levied by hiring multiple contractors and facilitating multiple jobs.

3. Weak arguments against change

So far, opponents of OTMR have relied on insubstantial rationale and moot points. In the case of Louisville, AT&T contends that the OTMR ordinance flies in the face of Federal Communications Commission regulations set forth in the Federal Communications Act of 1934. Oddly enough, the FCC itself disagrees with this assessment, according to the aforementioned Memorandum Opinion and Order from the case.

Moreover, as the Fiber Broadband Association commented in a recent response to the situation, Kentucky was certified by the FCC to regulate access to utility poles, as are at least 20 other states. If the FBA assessment is correct, the laws of the federal government do not apply in this instance.

On the other hand, arguments around safety and shoddy work are not without merit. Earlier this year, the Communications Workers of America went before the FCC to challenge a number of policy proposals, including those involving OTMR. The CWA wrote that OTMR provisions “short-circuit safe processes, leave third parties and their contractors without accountability for poor or unsafe work, and violate legally binding collective bargaining agreements, eliminating good, career jobs in the community.” Although there’s an obvious conflict of interest here, the CWA does bring up a good point regarding the increased risk potential and the need for OTMR to address those concerns.

Let’s move forward with OTMR

All that said, IDI Billing Solutions supports safe, sensible OTMR processes and free-market competition in telecommunications. As a Billing as a Service provider for many small businesses and fiber-to-home telcos, we believe that the only way to spread broadband connections to as many homes as possible is to reduce the bureaucracy around make-ready processes.