Utility poles key to internet access

Protocols needed to bring consistency to scattered ownership

MASSACHUSETTS IS FORTUNATE when it comes to high-speed internet access, emblematic of the Commonwealth’s long history of being a technological and economic leader in the United States. But it’s exactly this track record that makes it so disappointing that there are still residents of Massachusetts – 137,000 of them – that lack broadband internet access.

During my time as a member of the Braintree Town Council, I saw firsthand the importance of equitable internet access for everyone. Thanks to the work of leaders like US Sen. Ed Markey, the bipartisan infrastructure bill has finally brought a solution to this within reach.

The funding in this monumental bill provides billions of dollars to connect the remaining homes in the most rural areas of Massachusetts to the high-quality internet service that’s needed in our modern-day world. But while this funding is available, and waiting to be utilized, there remains a significant barrier to putting it to use. Our existing infrastructure for providing internet is the utility poles that already physically connect remote homes and businesses to the broader grid. The most efficient way to get a community online is for broadband hardware to be attached to these utility poles.

This is where the hurdle to universal access exists. Utility poles throughout communities are rarely owned and accessed by a single entity. Electric companies, co-ops, local utilities, and others own various poles and create a complex map, through which internet service providers must navigate and negotiate to affix their technology. All of which could be workable if not for the fact that there is no functional, consistent process governing access to poles.

Unfortunately, not all pole owners share a sense of urgency with the underserved residents of their communities, nor is there regular agreement as to how costs should be shared and split to access poles. The providers of internet access are willing to split costs and pay fees for access, but disputes arise, and can drag on for months. Meanwhile, those who suffer are the students who need to do their homework in the parking lot of the public library, or the sick person who has to drive hours to see a specialist because they can’t access telehealth, or the farmer who is cut off from accessing the most advanced agricultural technology needed to compete in a global economy.

In Braintree, we dealt with a similar complex utility pole issue in recent years, and worked through it by having the municipality buy utility poles itself to provide consistency to manage these issues. Every community can’t rely on an organized solution like this, however. We need leaders in congress like Markey to continue the incredible work done in the infrastructure bill to find a workable solution to this remaining hurdle and bring these communities the connectivity they deserve and need.

Michael Owens is a former town councilor in Braintree.