AT&T Sues Nashville To Keep Google Fiber At Bay

from the utterly-terrified-of-competition dept

We’ve been talking about how the latest front in the battle for better broadband competition is the boring old utility pole. As Susan Crawford highlighted last month, getting permission from an ISP that owns a city’s utility poles can be a slow, bureaucratic nightmare, since the incumbent ISP has every incentive to stall would-be competitors. As such, Google has been pushing for “one touch make ready” proposals that use an insured, third-party contractor agreed to by all ISPs to move any ISP’s gear during fiber installs (often a matter of inches).

But again, because this would speed up Google Fiber’s time to market, incumbent ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, Frontier and Time Warner Cable have all been fighting these reform efforts. Excuses provided by the ISPs range from claims that such reform violates their Constitutional rights, to unsubstantiated claims that such a policy would result in massive new internet service outages. AT&T has taken things one step further, and has been suing cities like Louisville for passing such reform laws.

After the city council voted to approve similar reform last week in Nashville, AT&T has now filed suit against the city of Nashville (pdf), claiming city overreach and immediate injunctive relief. The complaint trots out all of AT&T’s greatest hits for opposing the streamlined pole attachment rules, including claims that it allows random troublemakers to “seize” AT&T’s property:

“The Ordinance thus purports to permit a third party (the Attacher) to temporarily seize AT&T?s property, and to alter or relocate AT&T?s property, without AT&T?s consent and with little notice. AT&T would be deprived of an adequate opportunity to assess the potential for network disruption caused by the alteration or relocation, and to specify and oversee the work on AT&T?s own facilities to ensure any potential for harm to its network, including harm to the continuity and quality of service to its customers, is minimized.”

Except that’s not true. Most implementations of “one touch make ready” give ISPs ample warning of impending work. Meanwhile, Google Fiber currently needs to wait for incumbent ISPs to prepare the poles for attachment — a process that can take as long as 9 months if the incumbent ISP has an incentive to stall the process (worse if Google Fiber has to wait for multiple ISPs working in concert). That’s something that Google Fiber documented in a blog post recently that has been a real problem in Nashville, where just 33 of the approximately 44,000 poles in the city have been prepared for Google Fiber work.

From Texas to California, AT&T has been accused for years of using its control over city utility poles as yet another avenue to discourage broadband competition. And the telco is surely furious somebody is finally doing something about it in Tennessee, a state whose legislature is so eager to protect AT&T’s monopoly it effectively lets the telco write awful state law. Hell, Nashville’s city council last week even had the gall to shoot down a Comcast and AT&T written proposal that would have bogged Google Fiber down in committee for months.

Of course these incumbent ISPs know they can’t win. Pole attachment is generally supported by communities, many tech associations and government alike, all collectively tired of AT&T’s stranglehold over the status quo. But the goal isn’t to stop deployment but to slow it down, giving incumbent ISPs more time to not only lock down existing customers into long-term contracts, but to fuel ongoing rumors that Google Fiber is out of its depth.

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Companies: at&t, google

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Comments on “AT&T Sues Nashville To Keep Google Fiber At Bay”

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jsjohnson says:

Serious Question

Do all utility poles have to be owned by a utility? Just wondering why municipalities don’t just pay the utilities to own the rights to these things then lease them back thus short circuiting this whole process. Seems to me that utilities in general are an essential service and maybe the ownership of the poles is a good way to ensure that everyone has equal access to what’s already available.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Serious Question

If that’s the case then it’s even worse than I thought. The company should have no say wether their stuff will be moved or not if it is not leaving the goddamn pole. Specially if an insured, specialized party twill do the job. The Govt should just tell them to shut up and go ahead with the moving.

mcinsand (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Serious Question

You really make a great point, Ninja, though I would suggest one refinement:

>The Govt should just tell them to shut up and go ahead
>with the moving.

The Govt should remind them who owns the poles and give them a choice: accept the terms that the Govt is setting (allow insured third parties to move the hardware) or put up their own company owned poles… subject to Govt approval for the construction, of course heh-heh.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Serious Question

It’s more subtle than that. Depending on where you are at, the poles may be owned by the local municipality, one of the utility companies that use them, or even a third party. Then the lines and equipment on the poles are owned by one of these entities and space is leased. In addition, some equipment may be owned by one company and leased to one or more. It really is a lot of crap in a tiny sandbox.

Some of the PITA AT&T is complaining about actually makes sense. Moving around things on the poles can cause outages, sometimes requires coordination with head-ends and network centers, and can obviously be simply dangerous. One-touch make ready rules can actually create a monopoly in the “agreed upon” provider that can do the work in certain areas and jack up the prices the telco’s are paying (nobody wants to deal with a monopoly).

However, progress really should move forward and we need to come up with a better way than we currently have to get things moved around in a more timely manner. One-touch rules do seem to be better than what we have today, but it’s not as simple as it may sound.

mcinsand (profile) says:

eminent domain

If ever there was justification for eminent domain, this is it. Local ISP monopolies or duopolies guarantee that we will overpay for poor service. Enabling competition is the only way to get the US out of third-world ISP status. Given the protectionist nature of AT&Time_Warner, is there any way to apply antitrust regulations?

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: eminent domain

Antitrust laws are a joke. It took forever to stop Microsoft which had a long history of deliberately forcing PC OEMs to pay for Microsoft’s OS on ALL equipment they shipped — even if the customer wanted a different OS. Antitrust was ineffective at stopping other Microsoft anticompetitve tactics.

It wasn’t competition, but effective disruption with new innovations that finally, somewhat broke the stranglehold.

Now Linux and open source are everywhere. Microsoft tried and failed to play catch up on phones / tablets. Microsoft is trying to play catch up with embedded system boards such as Raspberry Pi. Microsoft has had to embrace open source because that’s where the developers are. Chromebooks have been the top selling laptops on Amazon for years now. Microsoft has not succeeded at taking over your living room and TV. PCs and Laptops have been declining in sales for several years, which directly affects Microsoft.

I wouldn’t mind if Microsoft could play nice. But being anticompetitive is in their DNA. I doubt they can easily get rid of it from their culture.

It’s really like AT&T. After the AT&T monopoly breakup, AT&T found that, on long distance service, where it no longer had a monopoly, it couldn’t compete its way out of a paper bag. And you’d think it could since it had equipment, experience, etc. But a monopoly mindset.

Like Microsoft, AT&T wouldn’t know how to compete in an actual competitive market if its life depended on it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: eminent domain

Antitrust laws are a joke. And yet those are the ONLY laws that we should “allow” the government to have against any business when it comes to market regulation.

The real problem is the same problem that has always existed and that is corruption in government. Anti-Trust or “regulation” is no more effective than the will of the bought and paid for members of government agencies congress created.

You will NEVER removed corruption from society, so instead, the next best thing is to only use a model that resists the corruption the most. And this is “Capitalism + Free Market + Strong Anti-Trust & Anti-Monopoly law + Consumer Rights laws that prevent things like EULA’s and TOS’s that are designed to strip legal remedies away from them”.

That is about all we would need to combat the VAST MAJORITY of these problems. But no, we cannot have that because people are wired to get into everyone’s business like they know what the fuck they are doing and create the WORST POSSIBLE solutions to simple fucking problems. The American population & government is a representative example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

MOST people that believe they know more than they know while doubling down on the stupid, and the few too many people in the know expecting people to see this as EASY to understand and wondering why others “do not get it!”

In the words of “Lo Pan”… many of you “were not put on this earth to get it!”

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: eminent domain

Occasionally a government-enforced limited monopoly has some value to the public. Public transit for example. You want the entire city covered, not just the busy money-making routes. Otherwise transit wouldn’t be an option for most people. So the busy routes subsidize the rest.

When someone announces a competing transit system (Toronto for example around a decade ago), inevitably they’re only planning to service the money-making routes. Faced with competition only on those routes, the existing transit system can no longer subsidize the lesser routes and would have to drop them. The city steps in and blocks the competition.

Of course, taxi services and private cars and rentals and hotel and event shuttles are all still allowed. They’re not direct competition. And the TTC and other transit systems are partnering with ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to service the remote parts of town.

Granting a limited monopoly to a ISP might make sense. But with strict limits: If they’re not providing fiber and a potential competitor will, it’s not direct competition, so no monopoly. If their service sucks, no monopoly. And most important: if the competitor can show that they’ll service a wide area – not just the money-making parts of town – no monopoly.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: eminent domain

The situation is little different from transit: You want universal coverage, not just the wealthy or densely populated areas. And so the wealthy or densely populated areas subsidize the rest. If a competitor comes along that services ONLY the wealthy or densely populated areas, everyone else is screwed.

But again, I’m talking about a very narrow set of conditions allowing for a monopoly, with conditions where a new competitor (or bad service from the incumbent) can break that monopoly.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 eminent domain

Then you only MEAN subsidies. If a town wants a service too expensive for a company to do it on their own then they offer to subsidize the build. Still zero reason to offer a monopoly.

If a “natural” monopoly forms then it should become public property where access is shared under supervision. Yes this will still breed corruption, but not nearly as fast or as bad than if you just give it straight to the public sector. You can NEVER allow government to regulate private property or business, it is a hyper fertile breeding ground for entrenched corruption. Government should only ever be allowed to manage public property.

The ONLY thing regulation produces is an Oligarchy or Oligopoly and it will do it either in the shadows or it will do it right in front of your face just as the FCC did it for the telco’s and call it a necessary evil to push off the nay-sayers. Or as I like to call it “The Emperors New Clothes” complexes a lot of pro-regulations have. The corruption is there, its right in their fucking faces and they just say… “wow what nice new clothes the Emperor is wearing or proposing to wear”, while looking at nothing but a naked ass fucking corruption.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 eminent domain

Here in Manitoba there were four rail lines going up into the Interlake region. They served grain elevators, allowing farmers to get their goods to market. They were run at a loss, but keeping the lines open was a condition of a the CN/CP oligopoly that made for big profits elsewhere. Then the rail lines convinced the government to deregulate. The branch lines were no longer required.

Three of those four lines were torn up completely and half of the fourth. The remaining bit of the fourth was purchased and kept open as a private railroad by some farmers and a local industry – with heavy government subsidies.

The farmers that delivered grain via the three and a half rail lines that closed, are screwed. Yes, the oligopoly was corrupt as hell and would make even Comcast blush. But at least the service was there. Outside of the high-population-density and wealthy neighborhoods, the alternative to a monopoly or oligopoly is often simply nothing.

Again, the point of any such monopoly is that it provide universal service. The condition being that it should be easy to break by anyone else willing to provide universal service – rather than just in the most lucrative neighborhoods.

Ninja (profile) says:

I believe some things just have to be public (as in Govt owned). This is one example. It’s not like Google could just get fed up and install more poles. Imagine in a competitive scenario where you have 4-5 ISPs plus the electricity company(ies) where applicable. It doesn’t make sense to install redundant poles.

The Govt should own the infra-structure and the willing parties should rent it for reasonable pricing.

Andy says:

Re: Re: Re:

Data caps , there is no reason for them, when you are inactive on your broadband connection when you are not downloading or uploading anything or there is no pc connected to your router, the router is still effectively sending the max data, the only difference when you use the internet is that you change some of the 1’s and 0’s. It does not consume any more power , it does not affect any other user, remember whenever they say data caps are necessary it is a complete lie, they are sending and receiving data at max levels for your line permanently, they only time that you do not have a stream of data is when you unplug your router thus removing yourself from the stream of ones and zeros.

There is no way that any isp could or should be allowed to claim more data costs more , it does not and never will.

The only time bandwidth could become problem is if the isp does not have enough equipment to supply what they have sold and will result in lower speeds thus the inability to send data at the speed they have advised. There is no way that me as a user could ever cause congestion by downloading 100% of the time, the fact is that nobody seems to care that data caps do nothing they do not help anyone they only cause a revenue stream by restricting what you have purchased.

The only people affected by me using my internet connection all the time at the highest speed would be websites that do not have a big enough connection to the internet so cannot have more than a specific amount of computers connecting at any one instant in time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

There is another problem with reach service owning its own poles poles, making sure that you wires or fiber do not collide with another service, especially when having to cross over their route. This would include making sure that if one pole was knocked down, it does not fall through the cables of neighboring poles. Such a situation would be a nightmare.

Lord Binky says:

On the other hand… the third party would be liable for damages so it’s not open season on chopping up AT&T’s cable. And your equipment being shuffled around a 30ft area is not considered seized. Let the Feds seize your equipment for a couple years, which does count as temporary, and you can compare the differences between what is proposed and how a pro seizes equipment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Stupid question from the EU

Why don’t they put the stuff underground?
Open up the street, dig 4-5 feet, put a 10-20inch pipe in, close, move to next section.

The advantages are you don’t have ugly utility poles everywhere and Google wouldn’t have to beg to use other ISPs stuff.

I’m curious if there is a law against that or something because here (Germany) I can drive from a city of 100k people to a town of 100-200 people and dont see one pole on the way (except for those huge power line ones) or in the city/town itself (again, train/bus/… power lines excluded)

Avatar28 (profile) says:

Re: Stupid question from the EU

The ground in Nashville is not well suited to burying utility lines. It is mostly karst and shallow limestone so you’re basically having to cut through a lot of rock to do it. Very slow and exceedingly expensive. Nashville is also a rather large city, geographically speaking, about 525 sq mi (1350 sq km). A few areas, mostly newer subdivisions, do have below ground lines for power, phone etc but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Stupid question from the EU

As other people have said in these comments: these are the city’s poles. It’s the equipment that’s already on the poles that belongs to the companies, and that’s what the companies are saying no one should be allowed to touch (i.e., move around to make room for new stuff) without their permission.

That One Guy (profile) says:

"Thanks for the PR boost, here's your PR black-eye."

Google could easily turn this to their advantage by making it clear that any such lawsuit will result in them paying the city’s legal fees to defend against it.

I know they’ve done it in at least one case(not sure if it’s this one or not), but doing so would make AT&T and other companies a lot less eager to file suit, knowing that they can’t just outspend a local government, make a lot more cities willing to take the risk, and get Google a huge PR boost.

Avatar28 (profile) says:

Re: "Thanks for the PR boost, here's your PR black-eye."

They already did. The day OTMR was up for the third and final vote Google came out with an offer to share their attorneys with the city to help defend against an AT&T lawsuit.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: "Thanks for the PR boost, here's your PR black-eye."

Alright, so it was this case I was thinking of. Still, saying you’ll do it in part for one city is one thing, it would be far more effective to make a general statement that any city that gets sued over something like this will receive Google’s backing to fight the lawsuit.

They’ve certainly got the money to do so, and making an offer like that would likely be cheaper in the long run as AT&T and others would avoid suing at all knowing that the cities could and would fight back.

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