Cable firms sue over WV broadband law, say co-ops could cause outages

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West Virginia’s largest cable companies have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jim Justice and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, alleging that a new state law could ultimately cause internet service outages at customers’ homes and businesses.

The state Cable Telecommunications Association is challenging new rules designed to make it easier for startup internet firms to secure access to utility poles. The cable companies don’t want competitors meddling with their equipment housed atop the poles.

About 400,000 West Virginians have telephone and internet service through cable providers.

“There could be significant damage to equipment and to customer relationships and outages and things of that sort when you have circumstances where there are no limitations at all on competitors moving other competitors’ equipment around,” said Mark Polen, spokesman for the cable group.

The companies say the new law allows the smaller internet companies to hire private contractors and rearrange existing equipment atop utility poles without permission.

Federal rules already dictate how telecommunication companies share and access equipment on utility poles, according to the lawsuit. The new state law conflicts with longstanding federal law, the cable group alleges. The lawsuit characterizes the state law as “invalid” and “unconstitutional.”

Frontier Communications, the state’s largest internet provider, filed a lawsuit with the same allegations last week.

Earlier this year, Frontier and the cable companies lobbied against the pole access changes — part of a broadband expansion measure (House Bill 3093) — but state lawmakers passed the legislation during this year’s session, and Justice signed it into law.

The Federal Communications Commission has been reviewing pole-access rules for months.

“During the legislative session, we encouraged that the pole attachment provisions not be included in the bill, primarily because the FCC was undergoing an extensive review of these rules,” Polen said. “We thought it was premature for the state to deal with the topic.”

Most of the state’s utility poles are owned by Frontier, First Energy and American Electric Power.

Federal rules now give existing providers 60 days to rearrange equipment atop poles before competitors can start installing their own equipment.

Under the state’s new procedures, Suddenlink and other large cable companies predict that startup firms — and their inexperienced subcontractors — will damage existing equipment, forcing the larger internet providers to spend “millions of dollars” on repairs.

The cable companies aren’t challenging other measures in the comprehensive broadband law.

For instance, the new law allows up to 20 families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that provide broadband service in areas shunned by internet providers. The law authorizes up to three cities or counties to band together and build broadband networks.

The bill’s supporters predict increased competition will lead to faster internet speeds and lower prices for consumers.

The broadband legislation also authorizes the state to back loans to smaller internet providers that want to bring broadband service to rural areas.

The firms would be eligible for loan guarantees of up to $10 million. The West Virginia Economic Development Authority would administer the program. The loan guarantees would be available only for projects designed to bring high-speed internet to areas with no existing broadband service.

The cable industry’s lawsuit names Justice and Morrisey as defendants because the governor “executes” state laws, while the attorney general represents the state in legal matters, according to the complaint.

Spokesmen for Justice and Morrisey could not be reached for comment Monday.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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