Who owns the poles? Fiber project caught up in jurisdictional tangle
Oct 25, 2012 (Lake County News-Chronicle - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- On Tuesday, Mayor Randy Bolen said the city won't take an official position on ownership in the dispute between Lake Connections, who is at work on the county-wide fiber optic project, and Frontier Communications, providers of phone and internet service in the city.
Lake Connections is currently stringing aerial fiber along utility poles in Two Harbors for the project's first phase. This fiber will be the backbone of the project, which will extend broadband service to residents in all of Lake County as well as parts of St. Louis County. But according to Lake County Commissioner Paul Bergman, the ownership of about 165 Two Harbors-based poles is in question.
Bergman informed the News-Chronicle last Monday that the county signed a pole attachment agreement with the city before stringing the fiber. The agreement, however, did not clearly state which poles the city owned and now Frontier is taking issue with the pole attachments.
"Lake County has placed fiber on Frontier-owned poles without submitting permit applications to Frontier," said Kirk Lehman, general manager for Frontier Communications in northern Minnesota, in a prepared statement. He said Frontier has continuing property records that identify which poles they own, information which they provided to Lake Connections and the City of Two Harbors prior to construction.
Bergman said the agreement they signed with the city didn't indicate that any of the poles were owned by other companies.
"Even if Lake Connections didn't exist, we as citizens of Two Harbors have a...pole ownership problem," Bergman said Wednesday.
Jeff Roiland, project manager for Lake Connections, said the city has been maintaining the poles in question for years and wonders why ownership is an issue. Two Harbors Mayor Randy Bolen conceded that the city has been maintaining and replacing the poles as needed, but he said the question of ownership never came up before the fiber project. Frontier said they didn't authorize this city-performed maintenance on their poles.
"It appears that the City may have replaced some Frontier-owned poles without Frontier's authorization," Lehman said in the statement.
In an email to the News-Chronicle, Bergman said Two Harbors Attorney Steve Overom and City Administrator Lee Klein were asked by the Two Harbors City Council to draw up a new pole attachment ordinance about a year ago, but that the ordinance doesn't provide the necessary information about who owns which poles.
"This is a situation that we've ... been trying to keep the city out of taking positions on," Overom said at the Two Harbors City Council agenda meeting on Monday. "The city is intending to step away from being involved." Instead, city officials will set up a mediated meeting between Lake Connections and Frontier Communications.
At the action meeting Monday, the council approved a motion by Bolen to set up the meeting. In the motion, Bolen proposed that the meeting include County Administrator Matt Huddleston, Roiland, Klein, Overom, Kirk Lehman, Frontier Communications general manager for Northern Minnesota and another Frontier representative of Lehman's choosing. Bolen said, with the exception of city attorney Overom, "attorneys and politicians" would not be permitted at the meeting.
If the issue isn't resolved at the meeting, which Bolen said he hopes will happen within a week, the city will send a letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
"It pays for all parties involved to work out a deal before a letter gets sent to PUC," Bolen said.
Roiland said Lake Connections is unsure of what role MPUC would play in the dispute. Former Lake County Attorney Russ Conrow, who is on the county's fiber optic committee, asked at Monday's meeting if MPUC is authorized to determine pole ownership; city officials didn't have an answer.
Dan Wolf, assistant executive secretary at MPUC, expressed uncertainty of the role MPUC would play in such a situation. Without a formal filing, it's difficult to predict, he said.
Frontier has also challenged hierarchy, which determines where lines from different services are strung on poles. Lehman stated that Lake Connections attached to their poles "without following industry standards that specify where the facilities of different entities are to be attached." Roiland said ownership must be determined before hierarchy can be challenged.
"Until you remedy the issue of who owns what, you're jumping the gun on hierarchy," Roiland said.
Lehman said in the statement that Frontier representatives "have made themselves available in the past to meet with Lake County to address pole attachment issues and have requested a meeting with the City of Two Harbors to address ownership issues." The fiber project will continue while the pole issues are being worked out, Roiland said.
"It's not going to stop our construction. We're going to move forward," he said.
Note: This article was edited from its original print version to include statements from Frontier Communications.
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