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AT&T, Comcast trash, kill Nashville's Googley broadband cable rules

City's attempt to foster competition shafted after taking pole position

An American city's efforts to make it easier for Google and upstart ISPs to compete against cable giants has been unceremoniously unplugged.

Middle Tennessee District Court judge Victoria Roberts decided [PDF] last week that Nashville overstepped its authority when it streamlined the process for carriers' engineers to lawfully climb utility poles and move lines owned by other companies to install rival services.

The move was supposed to inject some fresh competition into the area's broadband market, potentially shaking up prices and connection speeds. However, it ran into the little problem of who is or isn't allowed to touch competitors' cabling and the poles carrying them.

Back in September last year, Nashville, with the backing of Google, introduced a "one touch make ready" policy for accessing poles. This meant a carrier that wanted to string new lines on a public utility pole only had to give other carriers one written notice, 15 days ahead of the installation, before sending a technician out to the pole and lifting the existing cables to make room for the new wiring.

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AT&T and Comcast kicked off a legal challenge, arguing the city did not have the authority to place rules on poles owned and managed by Nashville Electric Service, a public utility company, and are governed by US broadband watchdog, the FCC. City hall does not run the electric service, ergo the city cannot tell the power supplier what to do with its infrastructure, the telecoms giants insisted.

The cablecos sought to reinstate the old "make ready" rules that required carriers be given time to move the lines themselves – a process that makes planning and installing new lines far more costly and frustrating as incumbent providers stall for time. This is particularly important for Nashville, as a massive limestone bed beneath the city makes laying underground cables difficult.

The Nashville case, along with a similar battle in Louisville, Kentucky, was seen as a key legal showdown between the upstart Google Fiber and the existing AT&T/Comcast stranglehold.

In this latest skirmish, the courts sided with the established telcos, finding that the Nashville rules were in violation of both FCC regulations and the authority of Nashville Electric Service to control access to its own utility poles. Regarding the FCC's claim, Judge Roberts wrote:

Comparing the [city's new] ordinance to the FCC’s four-stage timeline, the court finds that the ordinance directly conflicts with FCC pole attachment rules and regulations.

And on the second point:

The ordinance conflicts with the exclusive authority granted to NES [Nashville Electric Service] under the charter. This exclusive authority prevails over Metro Nashville's power to regulate the public rights-of-way.

The judge's ruling goes on to grant AT&T and Comcast's motion for summary judgment, barring the city from enforcing its pole access rules, pending the usual appeals and legal wrangling.

Google said that while it is reviewing the case, it remains optimistic it will still be able to launch the Fiber service in Nashville.

"We have made significant progress with new innovative deployment techniques in some areas of the city, but access to poles remains an important issue where underground deployment is not a possibility," a spokesperson told El Reg.

"We continue to support the city of Nashville in its efforts to expand access to superfast Internet to residents."

One of the claims in the case could also soon be undercut by the FCC's latest policy changes [PDF] that aim to simplify access to poles and allow for "one touch make ready" policies to be enacted. ®

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