Better conduit policy and One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) are two approaches seeing the state legislative limelight recently. With local examples to offer guidance, a few state lawmakers are attempting to implement similar rules.
State Governments Follow Local Leads
Local communities know their needs best and are best poised to make local decisions. Some have used new conduit policies like in Mount Vernon, Washington. The community's ordinances require developers to install additional conduit during construction and then deed the conduit to the city. The additional expense is minimal and the additional asset makes the property Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) capable, driving up its value. Developers don't consider the ordinance a burden.
Other communities have passed ordinances for OTMR. When Louisville, Kentucky, adopted OTMR to speed up deployment for new entrants, AT&T sued to stop the city, claiming that the FCC had jurisdiction over such decisions. In October 2016, however, the agency let the parties know that Louisville had opted out of federal pole attachment rules at an earlier date. Nashville, Tennessee, passed OTMR also and has also had to deal with incumbent lawsuits.
The overall goal is to make new networks less time-consuming and resource intensive to deploy. It also keeps communities free of constant construction noise and reduces traffic disruption, thereby improving the quality of life during the deployment. When an approach works on the local level, state lawmakers often want to reproduce it on a broader scale.
At a time when the state is strapped for funding, a West Virginia bill (3093) featuring smart conduit, micro trenching, and OTMR policy quickly sailed out of the state legislature and onto the governor’s desk.
Maine is also considering a bill (LD 409) to clarify pole attachment rules and fees; clarity for existing rules is always helpful to municipalities. In Connecticut, state law allows local communities access to a "municipal gain space" on utility poles, regardless of ownership, if the poles are in the public right-of-way (ROW). The law has been on the books for a long time and pole owners have disputed municipalities' contention that they can use the space to deploy a municipal Internet network. In order to get clarification, the state's Office of Consumer Counsel and the Connecticut State Broadband Initiative had to file a petition with Connecticut's Public Utility Regulatory Agency (PURA). The result is still pending, but PURA's decision will impact the state's CTGig project, which is a collaborative initiative involving Connecticut municipalities.
Fiber in the Air
After more than 100 years of putting wires on poles, you might think we would have already worked out all the knots in the system, but no.
If there is no immediately available space on the utility pole for a new cable, then a tedious process called “Make-Ready” kicks in. Each company that already has a wire on the pole has to send out a crew to move its cable in order to make room for the new competitor. This can drag on for months at a time, as multiple trucks must repeatedly visit the same pole. Make-ready for poles can be a logistical nightmare for even experts. Ken Demlow from Newcom Technologies spoke to that in Community Broadband Bits Episode 247.
OTMR simplifies this process. Entities with wires on the pole agree in advance to pre-approved crews who are allowed to handle all of their cables. One experienced crew from the list of pre-approved crews goes out to the pole and moves all of the wires at the same time. They then notify each company with a wire on the pole what was moved or changed. Next Century Cities has a fact sheet on some of the benefits of OTMR.
Even though make-ready work is complex, stringing cable overhead on poles may be less expensive than the alternative.
Fiber in the Ground
Networks on poles can be an eyesore and are more susceptible to the elements. Some communities have focused on underground installation with conduit that houses the cable under city streets and ROWs.
Mount Vernon, Washington, and Lincoln, Nebraska, both developed policies for installing conduit that increased Internet access for their communities. Mount Vernon's open access network allows several ISPs to offer services to the community. The network has allowed the community to save public dollars and attract employers from Seattle.
Lincoln, Nebraska, has taken smart conduit use to the extreme. In a state where legal barriers prevent the city from offering telecommunications services to the general public, community leaders in Lincoln have created a friendly ecosystem for ISPs by deploying an extensive conduit network in the city. They began in 2012 and over time have continued to add both conduit and fiber. As a result, a private provider will use the assets to deploy a FTTH network, and a mobile provider is using the network for improved and expanded service in the city with small cell technology.
Adding conduit underground, however, requires digging up city streets in areas that are already developed. These types of projects can cause traffic disruptions and annoying construction noise for the neighborhood. Micro trenching minimizes these problems.
Micro trenching is a technique to add infrastructure underground while minimizing disruption to street traffic. A utility company can use a small boring machine to create shallow, narrow trenches for new cable. The blog, PotsAndPans, laid out the details and pitfalls of this particular approach in a recent post.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, used this approach for some of their downtown project. Lancaster, one of the oldest towns in the country, is very densely populated but not geographically large. It's also full of historically important locations so the city and its private sector partner are taking special care in certain areas. Learn more about the project from the interview with Lancaster Business Administrator Patrick Hopkins and MAW Communications Operations Director Brian Kelly during episode 248 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Whether Overhead or Underground
Communities should be given broad local authority, but state law inevitably plays a role on local telecommunications. As more state governments consider improving statewide Internet access, local governments need to speak out to guide state lawmakers about effective or harmful policies. Each community has different circumstances, but sharing lessons learned will help state governments make informed decisions.
Image of the Minnesota House Chamber by Mark Dayton (Flickr: State of the State) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.