Guest opinion: Closing the digital divide in rural Utah

by Scott Bartholomew

Sometimes Sanpete County feels like an entirely different world from the hustle and bustle of the Wasatch Front. Although our pace of life is often slower, there is one thing we can agree on:  our internet doesn’t have to be.  

We are fortunate in Sanpete to have download speeds that rival those in the Wasatch Front, thanks to years of planning and a focus on long-term economic development.  Unfortunately, there are many places in rural America that cannot say the same.  It is time that we work together to address the barriers that stand in the way of helping them.  

As we saw with the Trump Administration, and more recently with the Bipartisan Infrastructure law, the federal government is willing to allocate billions for broadband infrastructure deployment. This is a worthwhile investment.  After all, in today’s world, high-speed internet is an essential resource upon which all Americans are reliant.  

While lawmakers deserve credit for acknowledging the importance of expanding broadband, the job is far from finished.  It is critical that they make sure that this significant stream of taxpayer funding is not wasted, and that communities without broadband are delivered the network infrastructure that they need as quickly as possible. To achieve this, policymakers need to modernize the current utility pole regulations, which are outdated and often lead to delayed broadband deployment and taxpayer waste. 

It’s important to emphasize that while utility poles might seem like just boring wooden pillars on the side of our beautiful country roads, the reality is that they are immensely important and serve as the foundation of our country’s communications infrastructure. To expand broadband infrastructure to rural unserved areas, broadband providers will need access to poles to attach the technology that is needed for high-speed internet access. In order to do this, they first need to be given approval by pole owners. Typically, pole owners are co-ops, electric companies, utilities or local governments. 

Far too often, this back and forth between pole owners and providers leads to unnecessary delays due to bureaucratic red tape, obscure rules, or endlessly drawn out negotiations. Unfortunately, the group that is most negatively impacted by these delays to deployment are unserved Americans—the very ones that the billions in taxpayer funding was allocated for in the first place.

One recent study even found that the American economy as a whole is being harmed by the delays that result from our nation’s flawed pole rules. The study, conducted by Edward Lopez, a professor of economics at Western Carolina University, and pole attachment expert Patricia Kravtin, found that pole attachment delays cost Americans between $491 million and $1.86 billion each month. 

So what can be done to fix our pole rules to allow broadband deployment to be expedited? Congress can establish a consistent cost-sharing setup, as well as timelines, for permits to ensure that the negotiations between pole owners and providers do not stall. Policymakers can build upon this by also creating a mechanism to resolve disagreements between pole owners and providers. By having an authority to resolve disputes, we can guarantee that disputes don’t lead to dragged out delays with no resolution in sight. 

There are common sense solutions at our disposal that must be implemented to make sure that the billions in broadband infrastructure expansion is not wasted. I urge Congress to modernize pole rules – the American economy and unserved Americans in places like rural Utah have too much to gain from universal broadband access.

Scott Bartholomew, San Pete County Commissioner