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Too Important to Overlook

Updated: 5 days ago

Despite how totally cool it is to work in telecommunications, managing telecom attachments on the utility side isn't seen as sexy.

Over the years, I've heard joint use referred to in many... interesting ways. I take issue when I hear negative remarks because managing pole attachments feels like an opportunity—one that has tremendous potential for positive impact.

But on the flip side, these comments make sense. They come from being stuck in a tricky place. Failure in this arena is very public, and success comes with minimal glory.

Pole Attachments in the Spotlight

Public funding has inundated the market, and incentivized communication providers to build out infrastructure to communities that have been underserved for decades. RDOF and BEAD, along with other government programs, have brought broadband deployment to the center stage. 

Pole attachments are always necessary in some capacity for broadband deployment projects. They're also one of the most cost-effective ways to serve rural communities. 

With broadband front and center in the public eye, and pole attachment requests steadily climbing, pole owners have been under immense scrutiny to streamline processes and improve timelines. The FCC has even put new regulations in place to apply pressure to pole owners across the country.

Some of the bigger communication providers respond to delays by taking utilities to court.

What's Worse than a Lawsuit?

Pressure from the FCC and attachers is significant, but it isn't the biggest challenge of joint use. The most important problem to solve is safety.

Every day, construction takes place across a utility's service territory. Human lives are at stake with every truck roll. Pole attachments aren't the reason for every construction project, but they do represent an additional dimension of safety risk—communication workers.

The typical workflow for a new communications attachment involves every existing attacher sending out their own construction crew to move their cables. 

While working in the communication worker's safety zone is considered "low voltage," each new telecom attachment increases the likelihood of accidental injury or even death.

The concerns don't end with worker safety. Poorly engineered communication attachments can cause poles to bend or break—which leads to injury, property damage, fires, and outages.

You Can't Fully Enjoy Netflix When the Power's Out

Another major concern is the reliability of our electrical grid. Keeping the lights on requires active measures to improve distribution infrastructure, as well as defensive measures to make sure half the grid doesn't lose power every time the wind blows.

A single communications attachment doesn't typically put the grid at risk, but it's a different story when there are many attachments going in multiple directions with unbalanced loads. Improper engineering and construction add further volatility and increase the likelihood of avoidable outages.

It's tough to argue that broadband deployment should be priority number one, especially if you know a lineman or if you've ever lost power in the middle of the winter or the middle of the summer.

What Healthy Joint Use Looks Like to Me

It's obvious that the stakes are high when it comes to managing pole attachments as an electrical utility, but what does success look like? I'd like to break it down into four categories:

  1. Clear Priorities: attachers will cut corners and resist delays as long as the pole owner's priorities are unclear. Explaining safety and reliability concerns and how the attachment process addresses those concerns can build trust and get all parties involved on the same page.

  2. Organized Process: between agreements, billing, applications, and construction, joint use departments have a lot to manage. Accurate, up-to-date records and reporting can reduce pain while also providing clarity to vendors as well as attachers and their contractors.

  3. Transparent Workflows: the attachment process takes weeks (and sometimes months), and the status of applications is often unclear. Transparency builds trust with attachers and helps highlight where energy should be spent to improve processes. This doesn't solve the black box that is DOT permits, but it relieves pressure from the team constantly fielding questions about the status of applications.

  4. Accountability and Results: a healthy program should be constantly improving. Success should be evident across measurables like safety, reliability, and time to build. Post-construction inspections should be used to provide feedback to construction vendors, and attachers should have a chance to voice concerns without resorting to legal escalation.

A healthy joint use program may not be sexy, but it's absolutely essential to bringing reliable utilities to people. The crossroads of electrical distribution and high-speed internet are uniquely positioned to improve the quality of life for Americans.

Until the day these teams get the credit they deserve, we'll keep writing software that makes their noble work a little easier.

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