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Joint Use 101: Utility Pole Problems and Solutions


Picture of telephone poles with Katapult logo over top

We’ve talked before about the history of telecommunications and how, in recent years, the already fast-growing industry has ramped up to an even greater degree. 

With more connections than ever and more companies supplying those connections, the increased demand for telecommunications has made joint use management all the more necessary. 

What is Joint Use?

Joint use is the sharing of infrastructure, in this case, utility poles, between utilities, communication, and internet providers. There’s one owner with multiple renters, all sharing space on a utility pole. 

Pole owners (often electrical utility companies) are required to share their assets with telecom providers. Attachers and pole owners have to be in close communication with each other to make sure that the grid isn’t in jeopardy due to overloaded poles and ensure attachments are safe and up to code while providing essential services to families and businesses. 

Sharing infrastructure makes the most sense. There’s not enough space for every communications company to put up their own poles and the cost of doing so would cause internet and service prices to skyrocket. (Not to mention the eyesore of hundreds and hundreds of poles stretching for miles.)

Changes to Joint Use

Joint use has always presented some challenges— the rise of the telephone and cable sped up the race for pole space. But joint use really became difficult with Covid-19. Suddenly, everyone needed to be able to work, go to school, see the doctor, and socialize all from their own home. This nationwide need pointed out how many folks lacked adequate telecommunications. In the pandemic’s wake we’ve seen a surge of public and private funding and broadband deployment has taken off. 

The result? Joint use is more crucial than ever. 

With more companies trying to attach to poles, attachers and pole owners have to navigate what can be (but doesn't have to be) tense relationships. We go into more detail here, but essentially attachers want to get on the pole quickly and minimize costs for customers, while pole owners want to maintain grid reliability and keep the lights on. Thankfully, with healthy joint use programs, both those things are possible. 

The Joint Use Process 

From the attacher’s perspective, joint use can feel like a hassle. Attachers are required to submit applications for the poles they’d like to build on, get approval from the pole owners, and wait for the owner to survey the poles for make ready work. From there, the pole owner performs power make ready before the incumbent attachers have to move their cables to make room. Then, the new attacher can build on the pole. The whole process can take months, if not years. 

New attachers feel like they have to fight to get on the pole, like they’re forced to jump through joint use hoops to get the pole owner’s approval. They’re also stuck waiting on their competitors to move attachments for them to build.  

It’s a tricky place to be. One-touch make ready is one solution to the adversarial relationship between incumbents and new attachers, but teams are still struggling to make one-touch work.

Pole owners have their own set of concerns, starting with safety and reliability. The goal isn’t to cause greater issues, but the clash of priorities tends to cause friction between attachers and pole owners. Understanding a pole owner's perspective and unique set of concerns can help to shed light on why the process feels messy and provides better transparency between all parties. 

The attachment process is just one of the many moving pieces pole owners must juggle. As important as broadband deployment is for so many Americans, the list of concerns competes for pole owners’ attention. Other considerations include: 

Challenges to Joint Use 

Joint use really becomes difficult when we start to consider the volume of applications being pushed through a very small department (sometimes as small as one person!). Some challenges include: 

Application Management: Departments have to sort through a flood of application requests with various consistency. The volume of applications is only expected to grow due to public and private funding for broadband deployment. 
Inaccurate Data: Unverified or inaccurate information fuels the tension between pole owners and their attachers and confuses an already complicated process. 
Illegal Attachments: Unauthorized attachers put grid reliability at risk, creating issues for new attachers trying to follow the safety process. 
Construction Backlog: Construction issues and demands create a bottleneck for attachments, especially when a pole replacement is required. 

These and other challenges create constant pressure for joint use departments, which is only made more stressful by the public nature of their job.  

Joint Use Solutions for Utility Poles

There’s no easy-to-follow plan that erases all joint use issues, but there are steps teams can take to build better processes and standards that can alleviate some of the pain and set a foundation for healthy joint use. 

Attachment Portals: Attacher-facing software helps to maximize staff time, with utilities hosting data for accurate records and transparency between attachers and pole owners.
Post-Construction Inspections: Consistent PCI and attachment audits play a vital role in ensuring construction follows engineering plans and the grid remains reliable.
Routine Audits: Attachment audits shed light on unauthorized attachments and help utilities maintain up-to-date and accurate records.
The right software helps teams integrate these solutions into their processes and cut back on redundant work. These tools create space for humans to do their best work and utilize their expertise to build creative solutions to complex problems. Joint use teams can build new workflows that not only reduce the pressure placed on their departments but also support powerful, robust grids for Americans across the country. 

Thanks for reading! For more information, contact us at sales@katapultengineering.com today!
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