As internet services expand, co-op poles take on greater responsibility
by Preston Knight, Communication Manager
Call it a midspan crisis. As life changing as the advent and growth of rural electric lines and poles were in the 1930s, the ensuing decades would reveal the build-out did not account for everything the world would become. This has led to today’s conundrum for electric co-ops and their sought-after infrastructure.
“Fiber internet just wasn’t a thing when this stuff was built,” says Josh Good, SVEC’s joint use supervisor, who oversees outside entities seeking to attach to co-op poles.
On a recent drive along county backroads, Good surveyed the landscape with a checklist of poles to measure, as part of internet service providers’ planned expansion of broadband service across the Valley. Specifically, he needed to compute the “sag” — how much a line drops — in the middle of a span of electric wire between two poles. Good has to determine if attaching more wire or cable from a telecommunications (internet in this case, but it could be telephone or TV) company would meet regulations set by the National Electrical Safety Code, among other standards, for how much an electric line can sag near the ground, objects or other wires.
In some instances potential new attachments will either add too much weight, reducing a pole’s ability to withstand wind or ice load, or not meet the required clearance levels to be compliant with safety regulations. A new pole set between two existing ones, or taller poles to replace existing ones, might be required to accommodate the additional attachments.
This is known as “make-ready” work for SVEC, which can be the most labor- intensive and expensive component for making co-op infrastructure ready for outside companies that want to attach to poles. There’s a record amount of make-ready work today as requests to attach to SVEC’s poles have surged.
“It’s nothing necessarily new except for the scale of requests is by far the most we’ve ever seen,” says Chris Strecky, manager of field services and data analytics, “and it’s going to continue to increase in the near future.”
It would be easier for everyone involved if poles set decades ago kept in mind the potential for the wonders of broadband internet. There must have been a supply chain shortage of crystal balls back then.
The alternative now is how SVEC’s engineers approach the situation. They offer the best make-ready options to accommodate the growing number of requests for attachments, while keeping a keen eye on fulfilling the co-op’s mission of providing safe and reliable electric service at the best possible value.
LOOKING OUT FOR MEMBERS’ BOTTOM LINE
As Good makes his route, it’s important to understand he’s doing so representing SVEC for what it is, an electric provider. The co-op is not an internet service provider and does not plan to be one. That leaves other companies to provide this product, and the natural place they look is existing utility infrastructure.
Telecommunications companies populate co-op poles through what is known as a pole-attachment agreement. They use a national database to submit a request to attach to SVEC’s system, which initiates work on the cooperative’s end to verify what the system can handle based on the proposed attachment.
After SVEC investigates the costs to make equipment ready for attachments, such as setting new poles, that estimate is relayed to the applicant. It is the applicant’s responsibility to pay for the make-ready work, which is calculated to recover costs to the co-op at no mark up.
“Whatever it costs us to make something ready,” Good says, “is what it costs them.”
Many of the conversations around pole-attachment rates occur over defining a “reasonable cost” that balances the revenue-based interests of for-profit company shareholders with the geographic and economic realities of deploying in highly rural areas.
In 1978, Congress exempted rural electric cooperatives and municipally owned public power utilities from a new provision in the Communications Act, aimed at investor-owned electric utilities, that established subsidized rates for cable industry pole attachments.
Lawmakers recognized the value of allowing co-ops and municipalities to make decisions that reflect the unique geographic and demographic characteristics of each service territory.
By providing space on existing electric co-op poles, telecommunications companies avoid the far greater cost and responsibility of building and maintaining their own distribution pole network. The same economic factors that dissuaded for-profit electric utilities from extending service to rural areas in the 1930s exist today to discourage for-profit telecommunications companies from providing services such as broadband.
After make-ready work is complete, SVEC charges annual rental fees to lease space on poles to cover basic costs, such as those related to ongoing maintenance and vegetation management.
For much of the last decade, Good estimates SVEC received about 600 requests to attach to individual poles in a year. The number has now skyrocketed into the thousands as companies race to provide universal broadband internet coverage upon securing grant funds.
About 20-25 years’ worth of work SVEC typically conducts for pole attachments is now expected to be done in 20-25 months. The co-op handles the vastly expanded make-ready workload with the assistance of contractors, all of whom are in marked vehicles when they enter a member’s property.
“Our people get after it pretty good,” Good says. “Right now, without contractors, we couldn’t survive. We’re not unique. Other co-ops are seeing the same thing.”
Technological advancements expedite the process compared to the days of written logs and manual inspections. For starters, it helps that the co-op’s GPS directs drivers to individual poles, and not just roads. Upon arrival, the hope is for easy access and no barriers such as an electric fence, which Good encounters on his recent trip.
He sets up a tripod with a specialized measuring device designed to capture the relevant information of poles and wires to determine what work may be necessary for attachments. One of the key components is documenting the temperature during which lines are measured, as they may sag more in hotter weather.
“Our so ware tells us the sag based on the type of wire, footage of that span and temperature. You need to account for if there’s ice on the line, for example. There’s a lot of science to it,” Good says. “They have a designed tension. If they are over tensioned, then it becomes a pole-loading issue.”
His experience carries him through, knowing in some cases the lay of the land obviously will call for a new pole. No two situations are the same, and as the number of situations grow, institutional knowledge of the pole-attachment process will come in handy.
“Initial poles that were set were put out of farmers’ way, and it created these longer spans that were not engineered to have other attachments,” Good says. “That’s the fact we have to work through.”