LanCity Connect

A utility worker visits a home on West Chestnut Street to install LanCity Connect broadband equipment in this May 2017 file photo.

The company behind LanCity Connect says a federal decision issued this week is “a huge step forward” for the community broadband service in its ongoing battle with PPL Corp.

In an opinion and order released Monday, the Federal Communications Commission said PPL could not use a dispute over payments as grounds for refusing to process MAW Communications’ pending applications to attach equipment to PPL’s utility poles.

After more than a year, “our applications are finally going to be reviewed,” said Mindy Wiczkowski, MAW’s customer service manager.

“This was an extraordinary hurdle, and we’re through it,” said Frank Wiczkowski, MAW’s president. The two are father and daughter.

MAW, a small Reading-based utility, had filed a complaint against PPL with the commission in February.

In time, this week’s ruling could lead to MAW being able to resume expanding LanCity Connect’s footprint and signing up new customers, Mindy Wiczkowski said. But she cautioned that MAW has a long way to go and more obstacles to overcome for that to happen.

At present, LanCity Connect has between 250 and 300 customers, Wiczkowski said. Its deployment has been suspended since the end of 2017, when PPL sued MAW in Lehigh County court, alleging MAW had made unsafe, unauthorized attachments to PPL’s poles.

In April 2018, the judge in the case ordered MAW to file applications for all the attachments PPL said were unauthorized. The order barred MAW from access to PPL’s poles, allowed PPL to remove unauthorized equipment and required MAW to fund an escrow account.

In response, MAW filed 142 attachment applications. Collectively, they cover MAW’s entire network in the city, Wiczkowski said.

However, PPL refused to process them, saying MAW first had to pay $56,624 it had billed MAW for another set of pole applications. MAW has been disputing those charges as excessive. PPL also said MAW had to replenish the escrow account, which PPL had drawn down.

However, federal telecommunications law requires PPL to allow access to its poles, the commission said. Utilities can deny access due to safety, capacity or similar concerns, it said, but not for “nonpayment of a disputed claim.”

Hence, the commission ordered PPL to process MAW’s applications in full, in detail and on a strict timetable.

A PPL spokeswoman said the utility’s technical and safety concerns haven’t gone away and it anticipates “the majority of MAW’s applications will be deemed incomplete.”

MAW’s complaint asked the commission to bar PPL from removing MAW’s equipment and to restore MAW’s access. MAW also asked the agency to annul PPL pole-attachment rules that MAW contends are unreasonable.

The agency declined to do so. Insofar as the issues between PPL and MAW remain pending in Lehigh County, MAW should pursue its case there, it said.