Chapter 1 – The Evolution of Joint Use: The Last 100 Years
The oldest "joint use contract" that Alden has processed was from 1908. At the time, that 108-year-old contract was still in use. The world of utility infrastructure was entirely different at that point in history. To understand what's happening today, and to predict what it will look like in the future, it is important to first understand how it began and evolved.
The Handshake Era
In the beginning, utility poles were owned either by the power company or the telephone company in a mostly even split. Both entities shared space on the poles and operated typically under a parity arrangement. A handshake was sufficient for most joint use agreements, but in some situations, a contract was drawn up. At that time, these contracts were four or five pages at most, compared to the much-longer contracts of today. In 1934, the Communications Act was signed into law. The Act created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and established laws to regulate wire and radio communications.
Cable TV is Deployed
The FCC passed rules that required the power and telephone companies to share utility pole infrastructure with CATV providers. The goal was to promote the widespread deployment of cable. The FCC also mandated rental rates for pole attachments. As cable television became increasingly popular, the number of service providers multiplied, as did the number of attachments on utility poles.
The Bell System Was Divested
In 1982, the Bell System was divided up. Competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) flooded the marketplace, establishing service alternatives and driving down consumer rates.
At the same time, larger incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) followed the power companies’ lead and began issuing joint use agreements with companies attaching to their utility poles and other assets. The lines between longstanding parity agreements and newer joint asset agreements quickly became blurred as the marketplace continued to shift.
Deregulation of the Telecommunications Industry
Following the divestiture of the Bell System, the influx of providers led to a large number of mergers and acquisitions. Contracts were frequently transferred to new ownership, affecting both the pole owner and the attachers. As a result, multiple contracts were in place – often for the same company but with different terms – and it became difficult for companies to track and manage those contracts.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the telecom and broadcast industries. As a result, communications companies became subject to greater free market pressure than in the past, which led them to operate as true for-profit businesses. The cost-plus business model was gone.
Electric utilities and communications providers started to look at the real cost of placing, owning and maintaining utility poles in the field. They started breaking away from the parity agreements of the past and started to inventory which poles they owned and where they were located.
As the marketplace – and the nation’s population - continued to grow, these field assets represented opportunities for new infrastructure and build-outs to expand to new locations. Liability also became a concern with an influx of industry lawsuits.
Consumer demand for access to high-speed internet grew rapidly, followed by wireless. Fiber optic networks were installed to support broadband, and DAS antennas were installed to deliver wireless.
The Role of the National Electric Safety Code
The National Electrical Safety Code [NESC] dictates safety standards for power and communication utility supply systems. Its first publication was issued in 1914 and has been updated at various times during the past century. Before the NESC was established, power and telephone infrastructure were constructed without any regulations for material strengths, construction methods, clearance standards or operations.
The Code has undergone several extensive revisions over the years to reflect advances in materials, designs, uses, and construction and operation techniques. Examples of these changes include:
A revision in 1971 adjusted the Code to recognize that “workers were significantly taller than when the Code started. This resulted in raising clearances for the lower voltage conductors and parts in substations, transmission switching stations, and power plants.” The start of the guard zone around energized parts was increased from 7.5 feet to 8.5 feet, which remains in the Code today.
Unobstructed Climbing Space:
The Code requires that climbing space around poles must be an unobstructed. The original Code was fairly broad in its interpretation of obstructions around the pole, such as signage attached to the pole, overgrown vegetation or improperly spaced attachments. However, a 2012 Code change (Rule 217A) specified the definition, saying, “attachments shall not obstruct the climbing space or cause a climbing hazard.”
Wire Gauge Change Due to Fire Hazard:
In response to smaller gauge wire acting like a fuse during surge events and catching some vinyl siding on fire, the conductor size for connection of communication to the supply ground electrode was changed from American wire gauge (AWG) No. 14 to AWG No. 6 copper in the 2012 Code.
Fire Hydrant Clearance:
Clearances between poles and fire hydrants were increased from 3 ft. to 4 ft. in the 2002 edition to recognize the frequent use of gate valve attachments to allow a second fire truck to attach while the first is throwing water.