Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Expanding broadband requires granting access to utility poles

by Roberta Baylor

Preston County is a wonderful place to live. From Coopers Rock State Forest to the Buckwheat Festival, this county represents the best that rural living has to offer. It is a destination for tourists, and our scenic beauty and vistas serve to attract residents to this beautiful section of the Appalachian Mountains.

Unfortunately, living in rural areas also comes with challenges, and broadband connectivity is one of them. The internet has become a vital service. It is essential for economic development, school, telecommuting and telehealth.

Like the majority of the state, Preston County struggles when it comes to access to high-speed internet. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Millions of dollars are pouring into West Virginia to expand broadband internet infrastructure. Now, we just need to make sure that money is spent efficiently and that broadband projects get started and completed as soon as possible.

The path to connectivity travels across existing utility poles. Utility poles have been a lynchpin of our infrastructure system for generations. They carry phone and electrical service to the most remote regions of the country, and they can also be utilized to quickly and efficiently bring broadband infrastructure to homes throughout West Virginia and the nation.

Unfortunately, the rules governing access to existing utility poles are outdated and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Because of this, broadband projects are being slowed. Not only does this mean people must wait longer to get access, but project costs increase because of delays. This needs to change.

The way to change this, and speed up broadband infrastructure projects, is by drafting new rules addressing utility pole access across the country. The rules need to be uniform from state to state, and they need to address a few key factors.

One of these factors is streamlining the permitting process for accessing these utility poles and making it more transparent. Clear deadlines need to be set so broadband companies can begin to rapidly expand access into remote, underserved and unserved areas.

Rules need to be developed to quickly resolve disputes between utility pole owners and broadband providers. This will help speed up broadband projects and get the maximum number of people connected quickly.

Finally, these rules need to address the cost of replacing or repairing damaged poles. As many of us know, numerous utility poles throughout the area are damaged and need repaired or replaced. This is not unique to Preston County; damaged poles dot the countryside throughout the nation.

It would be unfair to expect  the broadband companies to pay the entire cost of repairing or replacing these poles that have been damaged for years. This will also increase costs for broadband projects significantly, limiting the number of citizens served. To address this issue, the cost of replacing or repairing these poles should be split fairly between all pole users.

Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, as well as our leaders in Washington, D.C., fought long and hard to make sure funding is available to connect the rural parts of the country that have little-to-no access to highspeed internet. I hope that the West Virginia delegation to the nation’s capital will take the next step to connect underserved and unserved areas by supporting the efforts to draft uniform utility pole access rules.

Roberta “Robbie” Baylor is the executive director of the Preston County Economic Development Authority and the past president of the West Virginia Economic Development Council.