Doug Neil

There has been a lot of good news lately when it comes to broadband and finally addressing the lack of connectivity in rural, underserved areas here in Montana and elsewhere.

This year stands to be a crucial year to make further progress. Thanks to Senator Tester’s leadership, the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program established in the bipartisan Infrastructure Law will unleash tens of billions in federal dollars to be allocated to states to expand access.

We have all the resources we need to get every Montanan and American online, but there is one often-overlooked aspect of broadband expansion that is standing in the way: outdated rules for utility pole access. Utility poles may seem mundane, but they are invaluable to broadband deployment.

To expand connectivity, providers will need access to utility poles to fasten the necessary equipment. Providers don’t typically own the utility poles that they need to fasten equipment to, so in order to do so they first must be granted access by the actual pole owners, which are usually utilities, electric companies and co-ops.

Sometimes this negotiation ends up being a headache that delays deployment for Americans without access - disputes arise between providers and pole owners about maintenance fees and pole replacements costs, among other things.

When pole owners and providers argue without a quick resolution, students living in unserved areas continue to go without remote learning resources, unserved Montanans with health issues but no internet at home continue to miss out on telehealth services that could improve their health outcomes, and our country as a whole misses out on achieving its fullest potential in an environment in which every American has access. In fact, one study found that ubiquitous access for all Americans would create up to $314 billion in economic gains for the country.

Let’s not let such an unnecessary problem get in the way of closing our digital divide and helping so many. There are various simple, yet effective changes that policymakers should implement to make the pole access process more expeditious, but broadly speaking, we need a coherent system for conflict resolution.

As things stand, disputes can go on for months with no deadline in sight and no authority stepping in to find a fair compromise that is best for pole owners, providers, and most importantly, those that still lack high-speed internet access. Fixing this will be key to ensuring that we close America’s digital divide once and for all.