Judging by the substantial turnout for the Fiber for Breakfast webinar on July 20, 2022, there are several utilities and service providers interested in leveraging the humble utility pole to deliver fiber faster.
“Many utility operators are looking at their pole lines suggesting they could be leveraged,” said Sean Middleton, Director, Strategy and Operations, Finley Engineering Company. “With aerial pole line availability, it brings the potential for lower CapEx and others costs, and possibly speed of deployment in many cases, depending on permitting, rights-of-way and other issues.”
While some utilities are making the leap to be internet service providers, others are more reserved and are watching and “looking at being a follower” in this area. But even those more conservative utilities are hearing from constituents who want high-speed broadband in their underserved and unserved areas.
“The interesting challenge for utilities or pole line operators is one, can you facilitate others even if you don't want to be an ISP yourself?” said Middleton. “Two, with having that ownership, how can you make your right of way advantageous for those that would like to serve broadband through there?”
Per National Electric Safety Code (NESC), there must be a 40-inch gap below the electrical “supply space” (where the wires and other equipment are) for communications assets. Rural utility operators, especially those who haven’t had a lot of joint use in the past and/or have older poles, run into troubles since the poles might not be tall enough to put in communications cable and still meet code requirements for vertical clearance. “The John Deere and Case International combines are not getting any shorter,” said Middleton. “Rural utility operators know they've got to have plenty of space to meet code and to have the ability to put communications cables in there.”
Finley Engineering Company’s assistance to utilities wanting to get the best use of their pole assets starts with assessing the readiness of the pole inventory for age and height. “Maybe 10% needs to be changed out if I’m going to add assets,” Middleton said. “I've seen people get up there into the 20%, 30% or higher depending on the poll line, how long ago it was replaced. There are old-fashioned RCA poles that were put in the 1940s still standing. They're great, they paid for themselves long ago, but they may not be ready to put communication cables on.”
However, paying for pole replacements doesn’t have to be as challenging as it might sound. “One important consideration is that the make ready costs can be rolled into most grant processes,” said Middleton. “It can be very much a part of the discussion as you're planning for fiber optics to know the poles that need replacing. Perhaps it’s done as part of your normal construction work plan, it could be embedded as a task in future endeavors as you're looking at replacement.”Learn more about making ready for utility pole make ready with Finley Engineering on the latest Fiber for Breakfast Podcast.