Throughout the nation, wireless carriers attach their facilities to electric transmission towers, despite the fact that they do not have statutory rights to do so. The rights of wireless carriers to attach to electric facilities generally stems from the federal Pole Attachment Act, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“the Act”), codified at 47 U.S.C. § 224. While wireless carriers have rights to attach under the Act, carrier rights do not extend to transmission towers. Southern Company v. Federal Communications Commission, 293 F.3d 1338, 1343-46 (11th Cir. 2002). This lack of rights gives transmission tower owners significant bargaining power over wireless carriers and often results in unbalanced license agreements heavily skewed in favor of the tower owner.
For example, license agreements typically subordinate the wireless attacher’s use of space on transmission facilities to the needs of the tower owner. It is not uncommon to find provisions requiring an attacher to remove or relocate its equipment upon 90 days’ notice from the tower owner when the owner needs the space for its own use or planned future uses. Removing wireless facilities in such a short time frame can severely hamper a wireless carrier’s ability to locate, secure, obtain permitting for and construct an alternative site in order to ensure continuous coverage.
Wireless carriers in New Jersey were forced into such a situation just last year when Public Service Gas and Electric Company (“PSE&G”) sent 90 day removal notices to wireless attachers along a transmission path that had been slated for replacement. PSE&G had no plans for temporary or permanent relocation of the wireless attachments on other PSE&G facilities. Given the timeframes for local zoning and permitting, the wireless carriers had no reasonable means for ensuring that coverage and service (including access to emergency services) would not be compromised. The wireless attachers were compelled to raise the issue with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, which in turn led to a settlement in which PSE&G agreed to cooperate with the wireless attachers to ensure wireless coverage would not be interrupted.
There is a relatively simple way for wireless attachers to ensure they are not caught off guard in such situations. In order to better anticipate a transmission tower owner’s future planned use of facilities to which they are attached, wireless carriers should monitor the planning processes of the Regional Transmission Organizations (“RTOs”). RTOs are entities approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) to both operate transmission networks in centrally dispatched control areas, and maintain reliability within established reliability standards. Most electric companies across the country have turned over the operational control of their electric transmission systems to RTOs. In order to ensure the transmission system will continue to meet reliability standards, the RTOs will typically engage in regional transmission planning processes to determine when transmission facilities will need to be upgraded and/or replaced. These planning processes are open to the public. Wireless attachers can and should monitor these planning processes in order to know in advance when an RTO will require transmission tower owners to replace facilities. In this way wireless attachers will be in a better position to work with tower owners in advance of receiving removal/relocation notices.