The use of public right of way is regulated by local or state government subject to local and state laws. Typically if a utility wants to install infrastructure in the public right of way, it must apply for and obtain a permit from the government agency which has jurisdiction over the right of way. The installation and use of that infrastructure is then subject to the terms of that permit. Sometimes the issuance of the permit and the use is also subject to a franchise agreement negotiated between the local government and the utility. Utilities are also installed in utility easements which are designated on recorded plats of subdivisions. Private property owners typically own the underlying land which is subject to this easement. And the installation of the utillity in these easements is regulated by the local government through a permit and sometimes a franchise agreement. There have been additional regulations imposed through telecommunications acts. Often local government is restricted by these state or federal laws on the level of regulation that can be imposed on a public utility. Due to the telecommunications laws I have never heard of a use that was denied and instead have heard of court cases forcing cities to allow broadband companies to install their equipment in the right of way even when that installation was opposed by the city and the public.
Because the right of way and public utility easements are limited in area and because they are designated for public use, private parties are usually not granted permanent use of the right of way. Occasionally, limited uses are allowed such as street seating for restaurants or dog fences or sprinkler systems. In the case of use by a private entity, a legal agreement between the private entity and the local government is executed to permit the use. The local and state government has much more ability to charge fees and establish parameters for the use of public right of way when the applicant is not a utility or telecommunications company.
Keeping all that in mind, I can't help but wonder what will be the consequences of the FCC's net neutrality decision. From what I understand the premise of this action is the FCC is no longer going to define broadband companies as utilities and telecommunications. It appears instead the FCC's official position will be broadband companies are providing information services. Currently all of the major broadband companies have significant infrastructure in the right of way. Does this removal of a designation as a utility/telecommunication company mean local and state government can now regulate them as a private company? How about charge annual fees for use of the public right of way? And what about the infrastructure in public easements on private property? Is it legal for the company to keep its infrastructure in that utility easement? Can private property owners demand removal or payment? The next time a broadband company tries to install its Internet related equipment in my community, will the court again force the city to allow its installation as it did last time? Or since it's no longer a utility or telecommunication company, will the city prevail at denying the company access to the right of way?
With all the discussion online about the upcoming FCC decision, I've been surprised to see only one article touching on these issues and questions. The author of that article, "Ajit Pai's Net Neutraility Shell Game," suggested this reclassification will not take place and that this action by the FCC is only a ploy to force lawmakers into a position to concede even more power to broadband companies through additional telecommunication legislation. But if the FCC does end up moving forward with what they propose, I would expect eventually some local agency will test the legality of a broadband company's right to occupy the right of way. And if that litigation is found to have merit, permitting of right of way becomes a whole new playing field.