When it comes to the OSP/distribution industry, folks are generally concerned about two things: the safety and reliability of their electrical grid, and the availability of high-speed internet. These two items are the backbone of most vocational, educational, and recreational pursuits in today's world, so it's no wonder that these two are so often the focus of our attention. It's confusing, however, that the industry's current methodology for broadband deployment often puts utilities and internet providers at odds with each other.
Problem #1: Real Estate
Building new power distribution and broadband networks underground is expensive (rocky terrain, state right-of-ways, etc.), so most utilities and telecom teams opt for aerial. Historically, utilities have built new distribution lines as their territory develops, and then telecommunications companies attach their network (copper, coax, fiber) to the existing poles. Early on, this wasn't much of a problem. Telephone companies ran their copper lines along the distribution lines, providing new opportunities for connectivity. However, the distribution engineers that designed the pole lines weren't counting on the myriad of attachments you see on poles in 2019. As poles run out of real estate, customers have much more freedom to choose between ISPs, but the stress of each new attachment could be jeopardizing the reliability of the electrical grid.
Problem #2: Competition
In the US, electrical utilities aren't competing in the same way that ISPs are. While utilities have natural regional monopolies, ISPs count on pricing, internet speed, and availability to attract and retain customers. To be successful, internet services providers have to: a) be where their competitors are, but at a better price/higher speed, or b) be somewhere their competitors aren't. A great example of the latter is rural broadband. If the right team can deploy a massive fiber network to underserved communities they will have a natural monopoly until a competitor finds a way to do the same at a better price. For new attachers, getting up onto a pole line can feel like a tremendous task. Utilities are concerned about your new attachment's effect on their pole's load, and existing attachers will do anything to keep you off the pole. Transparent communication and sound engineering decisions will assist with the former, while the FCC's new self-help rules will aid the latter.
Problem #3: Make Ready and Loading Analysis Costs
When utilities built new distribution lines, they built to standards and specifications that were created by distribution engineers to ensure safety and reliability for many years. Standards from the '70s and '80s, however, didn't take into account the modern overloading and under-guying that comes with a litany of communication attachments. For this reason, utilities often require make ready engineering and pole loading analysis before a new attachment can be installed. If you're not familiar with the NESC code or the utility's specifications, you might be shocked when you see the make ready bill for most new attachment applications.
Problem #4: Pre-existing Violations
Unfortunately, some attachers break the rules. They proceed to attach to a pole line without communicating with the pole owner or build their network out of compliance with NESC/utilities' specifications. More often than not, these teams get away with it because post-construction surveys are costly and inefficient. Then, when someone comes along and plays by the rules, they are often hit with their own make ready costs AND the make ready costs to fix existing violations on the pole. When you look at these problems and the differences in perspectives between attachers and pole owners, you start to get a picture of the adversarial relationships inherent to the pole attachments process. At Katapult Engineering, we've been working for years to change the narrative and equip utilities and attachers alike with tools to better communicate and operate in a conciliatory way. After all, both utilities and telecom share a common goal—to provide superior service to their customers. Just as power is necessary for the TV and internet to be used, access to high-speed internet is necessary for utilities to maintain a robust grid and communicate clearly with their customers. Utilities' number one priority is to keep their distribution system safe—not just for their employees but also communication space workers and the public. Their second priority is to keep the grid going at all times. For many utilities, a third priority is to help communication companies provide high-speed connectivity to their customers in a safe way. A new fiber attachment is never worth risking safety or service interruption, but if it can be built safely, it can elevate the quality of life for the community it serves. With all this in mind, it's important to note that 5G and rural broadband deployment success will rely on a paradigmatic shift in how we view the new attachments process for utility poles. In the coming weeks, we'll publish our recommendations for both utilities and attachers and how working together is the only realistic path to success.
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