As federal and provincial governments wrangle with how to improve access to support structures for telecom equipment, BC Hydro is trying to figure out how to price small cells on pole wires.

Digestible version (full story below):

  • Shaw Communications is asking the British Columbia government and its utilities company, BC Hydro, to allow it to attach additional equipment on hydro wires for free.
  • The utilities company is proposing to charge a fee for putting that additional equipment on its wires — not the pole itself — where previously that wasn’t charged.
  • The Calgary-based telecom said the utilities company shouldn’t charge because it allegedly costs them nothing to attach the additional equipment.
  • But BC Hydro’s rationale for the proposal is that there are alternative attachment points for small cell equipment, including on buildings, streetlights and traffic lights, and that such equipment installs still require safety inspections and has other work implications.
  • Shaw and BC Hydro signed a new agreement last year for access to poles, which allow the telecom to run its equipment and expand its broadband endeavours.
  • Both parties also entered into a one-year negotiation process whereby they would discuss the additional fee proposal.

Key quote:

“We believe innovative approaches such as strand-mount wireless equipment should be encouraged as an efficient use of finite support structure assets rather than treated as a revenue opportunity by the Crown electrical utility.”

Shaw email to BC officials

Fun fact:

  • Unnamed rival telecoms filed freedom of information requests to the province to get the agreement signed between Telus and BC Hydro, the entities that control the majority of poles in the province, according to the BC government. Rogers and Shaw have complained about issues with the joint-ownership model because they say it has caused slowdowns for their pole-access-dependent broadband projects.

What this story contributes:

  • Brings to light the fight to stop a proposal by BC Hydro to charge for additional 5G equipment on hydro wires.

Support the downUP

Deeper version:

Shaw Communications is pressing the British Columbia government and the province’s utilities company, BC Hydro, to backtrack on a proposal to institute new fees for wireless equipment on pole wires.

Wood poles, which run along roads and highways, carry fibre, coaxial, wireless WiFi equipment and cellular antennas. A two-foot portion of the majority of these poles in the province is designated for telecom equipment, which is under the jurisdiction of Telus — a result of a decades-old joint-ownership agreement with BC Hydro, renewed in 2015.

But BC Hydro, in signing a new agreement with Shaw on the use of poles last year, has proposed fees to attach additional small cell equipment, crucial for 5G networks, that don’t reside on the pole itself, but on the utility-owned wires near the pole.

Example of strand-mounted equipment.

“In light of the fact that there are few/no precedents in the industry as to how to deal with this type of situations [sic], we have signed an agreement with Shaw that we would spend a year to negotiate in good faith on the appropriate pricing,” Frank Lin, a director in BC Hydro’s interconnections and shared assets division, said in a January email to a colleague.

The one-year negotiation period will run until sometime this summer.

The downUP has retrieved hundreds of pages of documents from multiple freedom of information requests spanning months, capturing both BC Hydro and the BC government, to piece together the issues at play here.

“Shaw is concerned that there appears to be no government policy regarding this issue and in the absence of policy, BC Hydro has no mandate to facilitate the deployment of communications networks, including to remote and underserved communities.”

Shaw Letter To BC Government

There are utilities and telecommunications wires, technically called strands, respectively on the upper and lower portion of the poles. Often, telecoms will rent space on those strands from the incumbent telco — Telus in this case — to attach equipment like WiFi access point boxes. Poles, which are more abundantly available than high-voltage transmission lines, are often the only way to bring telecom equipment to homes and businesses.

Beside fibre and coaxial cables, Shaw also attaches on hydro strands and at no charge other wireline network components, like amplifiers and fibre nodes, which transmit signals through the cables to deliver internet service.

What remains unresolved in the current agreement, however, is whether Shaw should have to pay BC Hydro to attach wireless “transmitting” equipment — WiFi antennas for pit-stop connectivity, as well as small cellular antennas to improve LTE connectivity and for its 5G network.

“We believe innovative approaches such as strand-mount wireless equipment should be encouraged as an efficient use of finite support structure assets rather than treated as a revenue opportunity by the Crown electrical utility,” Shaw said in an email to BC officials.

Shaw cites as its reasoning the fact that the CRTC — which regulates fees telecoms can charge for pole access — doesn’t allow Telus to charge for any additional equipment on the pole beyond the initial licensing fee because there is no cost for the telco to add that equipment. Shaw argues that it doesn’t cost BC Hydro — which is outside the CRTC’s jurisdiction — anything to add that additional transmitting equipment.

“Application of additional rental charges…goes beyond cost recovery and discourages investment in new and expanded services, including to rural and more remote locations,” Shaw said in a letter to the BC government in September. “BC Hydro infrastructure are publicly owned assets and should be utilized to encouraged broadband deployment, not frustrate it.”

“Shaw is concerned that there appears to be no government policy regarding this issue and in the absence of policy, BC Hydro has no mandate to facilitate the deployment of communications networks, including to remote and underserved communities,” Shaw added in the letter.

But in an email to colleagues, BC Hydro’s Leela Magre said putting antennas on strands “still require shutoff switches on poles, emit radio frequency which potentially represents safety risks for workers and the public, and pose operational impacts to BC Hydro.”

Lin noted that many utilities “do not even allow small cells” on strands and that BC is “likely the first utility in Canada that is struggling with how we price small cells on strands.”

“We are likely the first utility in Canada that is struggling with how we price small cells on strands.”

BC Hydro Email

In an email, BC Hydro spokesman Kevin Aquino said he “can’t provide the details of our agreement with Shaw as it’s commercially sensitive…In general, different pieces of equipment have different prices so carriers will see both an increase and a decrease.”

Timely access to passive infrastructure, as they’re called, has been one of the most significant barriers to broadband deployment in rural and remote areas, according to telecom submissions to the CRTC, which is studying the issue. A big issues, as Shaw noted in a submission to the CRTC in January, comes down to how quickly engineering work can be done, which can drag on for months if not years.

Rogers had complained to the BC government about Telus’ monopoly on poles — owning about 90 per cent of telecom access in the province — a result of the telco’s joint-ownership with BC Hydro. It has asked the government to address matters related to that pole access.

In fact, there has been such a concern with Telus’s so-called monopoly on telecom pole attachments that the BC government said in a briefing note that some carriers have filed freedom of information requests to get the skinny on the details of the Telus-BC Hydro joint-ownership agreement.

Furthermore, provinces including Quebec and Ontario are making passive infrastructure access a priority item in their agendas to meet broadband goals. In Quebec, there is a coordination roundtable involving big telecoms, the provincial government and utilities.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Ontario Energy Board said utilities are allowed to charge market rates for wireless pole attachment, a decision that was made following a 2016 consultation process.

Ontario’s ministry of infrastructure said in a statement that, “We are taking steps to make it more efficient and cost-effective for telecommunications service providers to use existing electricity infrastructure, such as hydro utility poles, to expand access to broadband services.”

Shaw did not respond to requests for comment.

The country’s largest telecoms have for years pitched the idea that — to address timely access concerns for broadband goals — the CRTC should have oversight jurisdiction over access to poles, which the utilities have worried would displace them. The issue was raised in a report by a panel appointed by the government to review the country’s communications laws.

It is unclear if the additional attachment issue is any closer to being resolved. Shaw did not respond to requests for comment. Companies in negotiations like these often will avoid speaking publicly on the matter.

In a January 21 email to Les MacLaren, assistant deputy minister in BC’s ministry of energy, mines and low carbon innovation, Shaw noted that “to date there has been no progress in BC Hydro stepping away from their position of adding extra costs to wireless attachments…We believe this is in conflict with government’s overall approach to accelerating connectivity services.”

The ministry did not return a request for comment in time for publication.

Shaw has encouraged the BC government to reach out to BC Hydro to discuss its broadband connectivity goals and the importance of access to support infrastructure.

Read Shaw’s letter:

Shaw-BC-attachment-concerns

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