In Nashville, Google Fiber Gets Caught in Legal Battle

September 28, 2016

When Google first announced its plan to bring ultra high-speed broadband internet to select locations across the United States, cities clamored to be a part of the process. Now, more than 6 years later, the Fiber project’s process of delivering high-speed broadband to the Netflix-addicted masses has proved to a bit more slow going than anticipated, with only 6 cities currently connected and served by the new network.
For the most part, delays have been due to the sheer amount of time it takes to dig up and lay massive amounts of fiber optic cable underground. For instance, by the time North Carolina’s Triangle Fiber network is complete, over 5700 miles of fiber optic cable and necessary accompanying infrastructure will have been constructed.
Google has responded to this slow and costly network development by rethinking fiber optic cable installation as the path to high speed internet; from experimenting with wireless internet delivery, to pushing municipalities to rewrite ordinances so that Fiber can more readily access utility poles.

Faster access to utility poles can mean faster broadband installation, but as the Nashville Metro Council discovered last week, it can also be a quick way to wind up in federal court.

At the urging of Alphabet, Google Fiber’s parent company, and against the fierce opposition of AT&T, Nashville passed a “One Touch Make Ready” ordinance, which allows one professional Google Fiber crew (or any other new Internet Service Provider looking to install their services) to move existing lines owned by other companies in order to make room for the new broadband lines. Without the ordinance, Google Fiber would need to wait for existing line’s companies to send crews to move their own wires – a case of waiting for the old competition to literally make room for the new. Days after the ordinance passed, AT&T filed for an injunction, almost certainly ensuring further delay to Fiber’s progress in the city.
In the pending lawsuit, AT&T claims both that Nashville is overstepping the boundaries of its charter and breaking a contract made with AT&T in 1958. In terms of Nashville’s charter, AT&T claims that the metro council has no authority to make any decisions over changes in utility pole use, as the city’s charter grants the Electric Power Board sole authority over decisions regarding utility pole maintenance. Whether this interpretation holds power remains to be seen, as the city will likely zap back that the charter makes clear the board is an “agent” of the council, and no inappropriate lines were crossed when the Metro Council passed the ordinance.
Did Nashville tie its hands and powerlines to AT&T pre-internet? An alternative argument raised in the lawsuit seems to cut through Fiber’s desired plans; the city contracted with AT&T in 1958 for what seemed a mutually beneficial relationship; each entity could place lines on poles owned by the other, provided that each entity would be solely responsible for their own lines. It was likely difficult to anticipate not only the rise of the internet pre-1960, let alone the amount of competitors vying for use of pre-existing infrastructure in the modern day. Alas, a contract from pre-internet days could potentially stall the installation of newcomers to providing broadband service.
While Nashville is almost certainly not the last municipality that might get entangled in a legal battle between new and old utility providers, at least North Carolinians can rest easy for now. Nashville and the Triangle were announced as future Fiber regions back in January 2015; Nashville will remain mired in a legal battle for the foreseeable future while the Triangle’s first municipality went live with Fiber earlier this month.