Fiber fight in Louisville: it's about safety, fairness as much as competition

The legal battle between AT&T and the city of Louisville is gaining national attention, but important facts of the case are often lost in speculation over corporate giants’ maneuvering. A hard look at those facts reveals an attempt by the city to unfairly undermine companies’ property rights, hard-negotiated contracts, regulatory authority, and public safety.

In case you’ve missed the story: AT&T is building its all-fiber service in Louisville. Google plans to build its own fiber service in the city. Louisville passed a local ordinance that allows third parties – Google, for example – to move, alter, or remove AT&T’s equipment on utility poles. AT&T took issue with another company moving its property and sued the city.

Some have said that this lawsuit is an attempt to slow or stop Google’s fiber build, and competition along with it. But the real issues in Louisville are utility pole rights-of-way, public safety, signed contract agreements, and regulatory authority.

Before Louisville’s recent ordinance, it was a company’s responsibility to move its equipment as necessary. But the new ordinance allows third party contractors to temporarily “seize” another company’s property without permission or notice.

AT&T’s concerns over another company handling its network infrastructure without oversight is understandable. But there’s also a public safety concern. This job is regulated because it’s dangerous. Contractors can’t come in and move another company's equipment – skilled, trained workers are need to ensure it doesn’t endanger other workers or the public. It needs to be done right.

That dangerous work is AT&T’s responsibility. AT&T's union workers complete rigorous training programs and possess years of experience installing and maintaining this equipment. As president of the Communications Workers of America Local 3310 explained in an interview with NPR: “This work has been done by bargaining unit employees for a very long time, and we have negotiated contract after contract for decades to have that exclusivity for CWA workers to do that.” The city’s ordinance violates a collectively bargained contract.

What’s more, it’s not clear the city of Louisville Metro Council has the authority to enforce this ordinance. Indeed, the focus of AT&T’s lawsuit is that the Kentucky’s Public Service Commission, not the city, has regulatory jurisdiction over utility poles.

The point is: there’s more going on than AT&T trying to keep Google out of Louisville. Competition is important, but it should be safe and fair. If Google wants to compete with AT&T for customers, that’s great, but it should have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

 

Links:

AT&T sues Louisville over utility pole law adopted for Google Fiber (WDRB, Feb. 25, 2016)

 

In Kentucky, AT&T Looks To Slow Google Fiber's Expansion (NPR, Mar. 9, 2016)