Calculating pole attachment rates to cover maintenance costs is a growing challenge for electric cooperatives as more telecom firms seek to mount additional equipment on remote infrastructure at a faster clip.

“In the current fast pace of telecom development, it is advisable that electric cooperatives assess their pole attachment rates to make sure they are fair and effective," said Brian O'Hara, NRECA regulatory director for telecom and broadband.

If a co-op undercharges, any additional costs for pole upkeep would either be passed on to members or absorbed by the co-op's infrastructure budget, which could impact reliability and resiliency. On the other hand, overcharging could place a co-op in the crosshairs of state or federal agencies that deal with telecommunications.

New technologies like small cell or 5G wireless antennas are driving attachment requests and, in many cases, necessitating taller and stronger poles.

What is a co-op to do?

NRECA this week is releasing an updated pole attachment toolkit to help co-ops respond to these issues. It provides guidelines and data on federal and state-established rate formulas, evaluates these formulas and explains their advantages and disadvantages for co-ops to consider as pole attachment requests roll in.

“Some co-ops have not updated their pole attachment fees for decades because it is a costly and burdensome task. Many have erred on low rates that fail to keep up with inflation," said O'Hara. “This toolkit gives co-ops the information backed by federal and state rate authorities to determine pole attachment fee formulas that best serve their needs."

The toolkit analyzes and offers spreadsheets on several rate methodologies developed by the Federal Communications Commission, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Arkansas Public Service Commission and those first designed by the Rural Utilities Service/Rural Electrification Act in 1954 for electric and telephone utilities.

Electric co-ops have long been exempt from federal rules governing pole attachments, and Congress maintained that exemption in the 1996 reauthorization of the Telecommunications Act. However, telecoms have pushed federal and state regulators and legislators for rate caps and other controls. Today, 15 states regulate co-op pole attachment rates.

“Practical guidelines offered in the toolkit could help resolve fights at the state and federal agencies and legislatures over pole attachment rates," O'Hara said. “Specific data on federal- and state-set attachment rate formulas can inform and support how co-op costs are calculated and recovered."

NRECA is also making available a draft guide for co-op engineering and operations staff as a quick technical reference to industry safety rules for adding communications equipment to utility poles.

“This safety guide for joint use of poles and a three-page advisory on communications equipment installment from NRECA is especially handy now as the pandemic intensifies the need for rural broadband and the burden of safe installation on electric co-ops," said Robert Harris, NRECA senior principal transmission and distribution engineer.