Joint use departments thrive on all the right pieces of the joint use puzzle fitting together. Organization, communication, and awareness are the keys to smooth joint use operations. From inspections and audits to a centralized asset management system, this guide will walk you through it all. Peruse topics to learn about joint use basics, complications, common challenges and a variety of solutions. The table of contents below will help you get started.
Along most roadways and neighborhood streets, between tall city buildings, shops, and businesses is something so crucial to our lives, yet it regularly goes unnoticed: utility and communication infrastructure. Both utility poles and underground conduit house the cables that deliver electric power, broadband connection, cable television, and telephone service. Cables, wires, transformers, and infrastructure equipment distribute new technology and entertainment services. Electric power and communications services keep us connected to our friends, family, and work. Broadband and cable television inform us of current events.
While there are many working parts to keep utility and communications infrastructure operating, there are two main contributors: pole or conduit vault owners, and the attachers who use those poles and vaults to deploy services. The owning and attaching companies must work together to ensure successful operations. Joint Use is the ability to share invested infrastructure between service-deploying companies in a similar geographic area. Instead of one company owning a utility pole and using it for only their services, other providers in the same area can rent out the infrastructure for their facilities as well. This system requires owners and attachers to be in constant contact with one another to keep new and old services running successfully. Multi-step processes are required before attachers can rent pole or vault space from asset owners, including legal permit approval and rental contracts. After attachers are granted a permit, ongoing contract management is required.
The infrastructure (poles and conduit vaults) plus the cables, wires, hardware, and equipment are often referred to as assets.
Utility poles are the field assets we are most familiar with, but below our feet are conduit vaults that contain cables, wires, and hardware as well. These underground spaces are common in suburban neighborhoods and cities. They hide the wires and cables in either manhole or handhole spaces. Handholes and pedestals are typically residential, while manhole spaces are found more frequently in city areas.
The ability to share infrastructure investments has long been viewed as a benefit to both service providers and consumers. With the rapid deployment of broadband across the United States, joint use asset management has changed and is still changing. Joint use was once a simpler endeavor when ownership parity existed between power utilities and telecoms. But as technology and other communication options grow, such as the expansion of CATV and broadband options, the infrastructure landscape has had to adapt accordingly. For attachers, or service providers, it is more realistic and cost-effective to rent space on poles. The space does not exist for every service provider to build or buy their own poles, and the cost to do so would be staggering. On the other end, owners that are required by law to share space on their assets with service providers can also benefit from this arrangement – generating rental revenue by treating these assets as viable real estate.
In the past, there were limited entertainment options. There were fewer players in the utility telecom game. Television stations sent signals that were picked up by personal rooftop antennae. The closer one lived to the signaling tower, the better the picture quality and reception. For those who lived far away, they received static connections. Before 1978, space on utility poles was mostly reserved for electric utility and the telephone providers. After 1978, cable companies emerged and changed the game.
Since 2000, with the Internet available to consumers, broadband providers have flourished and thrived, but began to find themselves competing for available asset space. Today, wireless and Wi-Fi providers are have entered the game, causing even greater demand for asset space.
The joint use of infrastructure assets is coordinated in several ways. Some service territories use a policy of joint ownership, in which individual poles are co-owned by several utility companies. In others, the pole ownership is apportioned based on an agreed-upon percentage of the total population of poles. An ownership parity has become the most commonly applied system of the past century, in which agreements set out the overall percentage owned by an electricity provider and an incumbent local exchange communications carrier (ILEC).
Today, municipal, state, and private organizations (such as hospitals and universities) also own poles. Other utilities, such as competitive local exchange carriers (CLEC), cable television providers, and other communications providers, typically do not own utility poles or vaults, finding themselves in the position of attacher, tenant, or occupant; they attach lines to poles or install cables underground in a space owned by another company.
The increased volume of space needed on poles or in vaults by so many types of providers has created difficulties in managing the multitude of permit applications, deployment paperwork, and contracts. Joint Use departments are faced with the challenge of juggling many tasks from many departments. Jointly managing electric utility and communications infrastructure means handling service equipment and contracts of multiple service providers on one piece of infrastructure real estate.
Overloaded poles have more equipment attached to them than is structurally acceptable and can pose a serious risk to public safety. Overburdened poles may break more easily, can be subject to more significant damage in inclement weather than healthy poles, and can become compromised without warning. These threats can cause serious injury to the public and their property, and include a higher potential of service outages.
In some cases, excess attachments can occur when not processed through the proper engineering protocol. Further, not following through with appropriately-timed inventories might encourage trespassers to attach when they are not permitted. Without routine pole inventories, owners may be unaware of how many attachments might exist on a specific pole, causing overloading and possibly pole failure.
Overloaded utility poles are a problem that can be avoided by regular pole inventories and audits, including routine NESC violation inspections. Utility pole inspections are used to verify pole heights, attachment ground clearance, and wood conditions. Properly trained technicians can check for pole overloading and report it to the owner. Audits enable asset owners to make business decisions with an accurate record of how much space is available for additional attachments.
Some people call them double poles, others say “double wood” or “buddy poles,” but no matter its name, the problem is the same. The existence of two poles where only one should stand occurs in situations where pole transfer notices were not received, or were overlooked. In some places, this problem has reached epidemic proportions. One Massachusetts newspaper published a double pole picture every week for years to highlight the problem in their community.
With a lifespan of 25-40 years, utility poles (much like the trees they are made from) are subject to rot and decay over time. Even with preservative treatments, environmental factors, climate, and other ecological influences eventually take a toll. Regardless of the reason, when a pole’s time is up and it needs to be replaced, all of the attached lines must be transferred to a new pole. Each company that occupies space on the pole must be sent a “Transfer Notice” from the owning company. Attaching companies are then expected to transfer equipment from the old utility pole to the new. Once the transfers are completed, the old pole should be removed. The process is long, and requires many working parties to cooperate. Often, transfers are so slow that two (or three) poles will often remain where there should only be one.
For pole owners, a double pole is a problem for a number of reasons. Penalties and fines may be associated with the untimely removal of retired poles. Further, not only are double poles an eyesore, but they can block visibility in roadways and rights-of-way, obstructing sidewalks and impeding snow removal in some regions. Old utility poles that remain standing also have the potential to be harmful because of further deterioration in their weakened state, causing them to fail.
Timely transfers are the ideal goal for asset owners. The problem with timing is that most owning and attaching companies work out of multiple, disparate systems that cause a multitude of backlogged work. Further, such a multitude of systems makes communication between owning and attaching companies more difficult. Notices go unchecked or unreceived. Internal departments may not have the tools to communicate efficiently.
A joint use management system is the key to proactively moving forward with double pole problems. In a single system, open communication is simple and easy. It allows pole owners to connect with attachers efficiently and maintain an ongoing dialogue about important pole issues. Attachers can also keep utility pole owners updated on the status of transfer work. Owning companies can log and organize this information, which helps to ensure all permits and paperwork are handled properly and on time.
The growing number of unauthorized attachments on utility poles, as well as unauthorized occupants in conduit vaults, is a problem in the US. Trespassers forego the standard permitting process to deploy their services quicker and cheaper to local residents. Trespass comes in a variety of forms in many different joint use spaces. Let’s take a look at each.
As we learned in Chapter 1, handholes and pedestals are spaces in residential neighborhoods that place service cables underground. In new construction areas, it is no problem for unauthorized companies to physically move conduit and ducts into their own spaces. They illegally use the space to deploy services faster.
Manhole spaces are found in cities and some residential areas. Like handholes, they hide the cables that connect the nation underground. Usually, trespassers come in fast and quick to these spaces, leaving behind damage, structural harm, and violations. Unauthorized occupants use additional space in the vault without paying rent. They know that if owners are not doing routine inspections, they are unlikely to get caught. Best practices are not usually followed by unauthorized companies, especially since the vault space is not their own investment. Trespass in manholes creates a domino effect: bad practices by trespassers leave behind violations, structural damage, and unsafe conditions.
For utility poles, a lack of communication is often the culprit for unauthorized attachments. Given the growing number of attachers, utility pole owners are commonly facing illegal attachers acquiring space on their investment. For poles, this violation is sometimes referred to as bootlegging. Illegal attachments may occur for a variety of reasons, but a lack of communication seems to be the common thread. With so many companies involved—power, telecommunications, CATV, broadband, and wireless—plus the multiple departments from each company that must be engaged in each asset, communication is a growing challenge. Throw in the third-party contractors and linemen that must be involved for each asset, and it’s no surprise that successful coordination and communication is difficult for managing joint use.
Unauthorized attachers and occupants can be caught and found through routine inspections of assets. Geo-targeted field audits, in which every pole or vault in a specific area is thoroughly examined, gives owners clear insight into the activity in or on their assets.
To ensure success, owners should hire professionally trained audit teams with previous audit experience. The audit should include records of asset location, asset type, documentation of all attachments or occupants, a thorough safety audit, and structural tests. Depending on whether the space is a pole or a conduit vault, teams should inspect the appropriate details of each structure. An accurate depiction of rentable space for each asset gives owners a chance to use their investment for permitted attachments/occupants. Further, routine audits ensure quality engineering practices for both owners and attachers or occupants.
Asset owners are responsible for every asset they own. Ongoing problems, like trespass, can create detrimental results like structural damage. For field linemen’s safety and for the general public’s safety, audits should be performed routinely. Ongoing inspections are necessary to detect, remediate, and prevent hazardous violations before they occur.
Aside from routine audits, the use of an asset management system is the best way to gain control over assets. The expansion of technology has created a growing attachment conundrum on poles all over the U.S., and likewise technology now allows pole owners and attachers the clarity of every activity on or in their asset space. With an asset management system, owners and attachers can move forward without the hassle of stacks of paper, faxes, and email. See Chapter 9 for more information on a joint use platform.
Pole owners are faced with the challenge of determining the most effective means of managing their joint use assets. Damage, in both conduit vaults and on utility poles, is a common violation that often goes unnoticed by owning companies.
Several NESC violations are a result of damage that may be exist on many parts of the pole, or only one part of the pole. Even if the damage is insignificant, over time it can become a costly liability.
Damaged cross arms and damaged attachments on poles are dangerous and should be remedied right away. Even if the two suffer independently, over time damaged cross arms are bound to affect attachments, and vice-versa. Damaged hardware is an important violation for owners to be aware of, as it keeps the utility pole and its attachments connected. Damaged hardware should be replaced immediately because the hardware may be so faulty that the cross arms cannot stay attached. If utility pole anchors are damaged, the entire pole is at risk for falling, causing liability to the owner for the public’s and linemen’s safety. Lastly, damaged wood (like rot, decay, or cracks and splits) dramatically affects the condition of the pole and can cause it to fall or become hazardous.
Underground damage has many causes: unauthorized occupants, improperly trained contractors, and natural wear-and-tear from the elements. Most damage occurs from trespass and hasty contractor work, for which the owner is liable. It can easily be prevented with routine maintenance and inspection.
Vaults, whether manholes, handholes, or pedestals, deteriorate over time. Walls, ceilings, and columns can crack and crumble. Under ideal conditions, these structures last for decades. But just like any other structure (a house, shopping mall, school building, etc.), if the space is not well cared for, it is not likely to be around for very long. Environmental hazards such as oil, heavy metals, and root intrusion can contaminate the air and water in these spaces. Such build-up leads to remediation costs, delays, and possible injury or sickness.
Manholes and handholes are designed with pre-fabricated access points in the structure, called knockouts. When they are accessed from other locations, by necessity or convenience, it called a core-drilling. When done correctly, core-drilling does not cause lasting damage to the vault. Trespassers typically core-drill quickly and cheaply to make trespass routes convenient for themselves, leaving behind wall damage and debris. Wall and roof damage occurs from a number of causes. When the walls begin to deteriorate from unsafe knock-outs, it leads up to the roof above. Roof damage and deterioration is a huge liability for contractors and linemen. If it collapses, the street or ground above it may collapse with it.
Like the other common challenges we have reviewed so far, the only way to know about damage on utility poles or in vault spaces is via a thorough inventory. Inspections keep poles and vaults safe, accessible, and operating. Inspections teams should always check for the following on poles:
Further, inspection teams should always check for the following in vaults:
As broadband and wireless services grow, keeping up with attachment requests and the mountain of paperwork that comes with them can become a difficult task for pole owners. This creates backlogs.
With requests for attachments adding up, it takes more and more effort for pole owners to stay ahead. The approval process is complex, involving field surveys, inspections, and sometimes make-ready work with site preparation that can take up to 60-90 days (or longer). As a result, backlogs become rapidly unmanageable and the time-to-attach increases. Some pole utility owners are so backlogged that it now takes more than 45 days to simply process requests.1 For this reason, some attachers apply the “don’t ask permission, ask for forgiveness” ideology, and avoid the process altogether, attaching at-will. This, as we have seen, results in a whole other set of problems.
With backlogged work being a common problem for asset owners, there must be a solution. Owners may think, “I need to hire more people to process all this paperwork.” And while that may help the situation in the short-term, the amount of work remains the same.
There a few solutions that may help asset owners reduce backlog and stay ahead in the long run:
Keep accurate records. It is important for asset owners to keep correct, historical records of each individual task. While this may seem daunting, it helps streamline joint use activity for the future and simplifies upcoming audits. When asset owners can provide inspection teams with accurate data from the past several years, those teams are well-equipped to inspect more quickly and more precisely.
Employ new technology. Joint use management software allows owners to store all asset data, while also communicating to their internal departments and outside companies (attachers, third-party contractors, and linemen) all in one place.
Communicate. Utility pole owners and conduit vault owners can start conversations, share map locations, and negotiate contacts in a joint use management system. Systems like this make communication efficient and electronic, so new requests can be handled in a timely manner. Owners and their teams can work through any remaining backlog quickly.
In each previous chapter, a routine inspection of vault and pole spaces is the proactive solution to common challenges.
When vault and pole owners conduct routine audits, they can take proactive action when trespass, damage, or violations are found. A managed services and inventory service company should have professionally-trained inspectors with several years of experience. Further, the inspecting company should deliver owners a court-ready closing package for their legal teams when trespass, violations, or damage is found. Inspection teams should itemize the funds that owners are owed for illegal trespass and other violations by third-parties.
The key to asset management is simplicity. Managing joint use infrastructure from multiple, disparate systems and software products is no longer working for owners or attachers. With many companies experiencing multiple backlogs, damage and violations, and an increase in legal (and illegal attachments), service providers are eager for an easy-to-use system.
It’s time for a new way to manage Joint Use assets. A centralized asset platform for joint use is needed to unite providers of electricity, broadband, phone service, and cable TV. Users should be able to manage services in similar locations. Sustainable technology in a centralized platform eliminates the ongoing paper trail that contributes to backlog. One system for all assets and all joint use actions can eradicate manual, repetitive data entry.
With the ever-growing technology of broadband, electricity, and telecommunications, it is time for a system that responds to that growth accordingly. Owners and attachers should be able to use a centralized platform from their office, at home, or on the go. A Joint use management system should be accessible from a smart phone, tablet, desktop, or laptop.
Further, owners and attachers need to be able to communicate internally with their joint use departments, finance, accounting, engineering and management departments from one system. The communication platform in one system allows for owners and attachers to connect with other service providers. Owners, attachers, third parties, and field technicians can be aware of available real estate in a single geographic location. Customizable features should allow owners and attachers to share asset location or asset information at their discretion.
Lastly, a centralized asset platform for joint use should include interactive mapping features to streamline time spent in the field. They should be able to store, manage, and act on necessary, crucial joint use documents like permit applications and transfer notices.
The landscape of our infrastructure has changed a lot over the past 40 years. From single wires carrying power and telephone service to multiple attachments added for Internet availability and entertainment media, joint use has become the issue of the moment for the utility industry. As the problem broadens, the time to take action is now. With smart, integrated, easy-to-use joint use management solutions, pole owners can ensure timely transfers, manage attachment contracts, maintain poles more effectively, and be prepared for the next technological revolution in electric utility, telecom, and broadband infrastructure.