Can ‘Dig Once’ Work?

There is a lot of discussion on Capitol Hill of implementing a national ‘dig once’ policy that would require that empty conduit be placed whenever anybody builds new roads or sidewalks or upgrades existing ones.

This is an idea that has been around for a while. President Obama tried to require this as part of an executive order in 2012 for all federal road projects. But this never was implemented when the road projects didn’t have specific funds allocated for the conduit and labor. Rep Anna Eschoo (D-CA) has been proposing legislation for this annually since 2009. And a number of cities around the country have adopted dig once rules of various types.

It seems like this is an idea that has wide bipartisan interest now on Capitol Hill and so there has been a lot of talk about a dig once bill being implemented. Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) put the latest bill from Representative Eschoo onto the agenda for the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee. A number of legislators from both sides of the aisle have announced support for the bill.

But today I want to examine if a dig once policy will be effective in helping to build more broadband. Certainly in the long run it seems like a good idea – if every street in the country already had empty conduit today we’d be a lot further along in getting broadband everywhere. This would be particularly true in rural areas where the cost of burying conduit (or of getting onto poles) is the major hurdle for building new fiber networks. But like anything that involves infrastructure, there are right and wrongs ways of implementing such a policy that could limit the usefulness of conduit it is done poorly.

Speed of Deployment. The number one issue that I foresee is the slow speed of deployment of conduit under this policy. Most streets and roads are engineered to be replaced on a 30 to 50 year cycle depending upon the use of the road and local weather conditions. There are also huge miles of unpaved rural roads that may not be excavated for even longer, if ever. What this means from a practical perspective is that it’s going to be a long time until there is enough conduit in place to make a difference. Since America needs broadband now, I have concerns about a policy that won’t provide any significant amount of conduit for decades to come. I fear that the time to implement this was twenty years ago and that it might be too late for this to have any practical impact on building fiber that is needed now.

Access to Local Connections. A bigger concern is the issue of access to fiber. Consider a conduit that is laid with the dig once rules along a few miles of a busy business district. If that conduit was not constructed with the needed access – handholes and manholes – then the fiber will be largely unusable for delivery of fiber to the businesses along that street. It can be nearly as expensive to come back and add access to a conduit than it is to build new fiber.

Having empty conduit make a lot of sense along stretches of highway that will be used for for middle mile fiber to connect towns. By definition, middle mile fiber is built without many access points since the primary purpose of the fiber is to connect to adjoining communities. I think it was the access issue that stopped the federal highway department from implementing President Obama’s executive order. It’s one thing to put a conduit into an empty ditch, but it’s something very different to spend the engineering dollars needed to decide where access points are needed during road construction and to then pay for the access points.

To some extent this requires highway builders to have a crystal ball – where will the potential customers be along a conduit route fifteen or twenty years in the future? Failure to provide access to the conduit where it will eventually be needed will result in numerous future holes being dug in the street when somebody tries to use the conduit for local access.

There is even a simpler issue that be a problem with empty conduit. Consider a fiber that is built down one side of a busy highway. It can be an expensive effort to later tunnel under the highway to serve people on the opposite side of the highway. This means that using the empty conduit might cost more than alternate construction methods like building on overhead pole lines for distribution. Having empty conduit available does not always mean saving money. Do we mandate putting empty conduit on both sids of a new road?

I’ve already seen the practical consequences of having a patchwork of empty conduit in place. I’ve had clients try to build fiber in towns that had some empty conduit, and in some cases the hassle of trying to integrate existing conduit into an engineering plan was more work and cost than it was worth to these clients.

Uniform Rules of Use. It’s likely that dig once rules will apply to anybody that digs up streets. This might mean that over time there will be numerous different entities placing empty conduit in a City like the street department, the gas company, the water company and anybody else that digs up streets. Who is responsible for keeping track of the specific location of the empty conduit? How do you coordinate somehow connecting conduit that is built at different times, at different depths and on various different sides and parts of streets? Who is responsible for maintaining the conduit – for example, what happens when somebody cuts an empty conduit? I could easily make a list of dozens or practical issues that must be considered to make this work.

Without specific local rules I envision a hodgepodge of conduit built that doesn’t connect into a coherent network. I also have worked with numerous communities that do a poor job of record keeping and I picture losing track of conduit placement and creating an engineering and paper nightmare for a future fiber builder.

Competition. This may sound like an odd concern, but I can also picture dig once rules being a disincentive to build new fiber. Consider a situation where somebody is contemplating building fiber today along a route to get to a cell site of a subdivision. Companies that build fiber understand that the payback takes many years, and that factors into financing the new construction. If  fiber builder knows that a given stretch of road is going to be excavated five years from now they might not want to spend the money today to build fiber there. For example, would it make sense to spend the money to build fiber to a rural cellular site if five years from now the cell site owner will be able to bypass you using ‘dig once’ conduit? It would be ironic if this rule leads to less fiber being built – but I can picture cases where that might be the result of the rule.

Other issues. I can think of other kinds of issues that should be addressed with a dig once policy. For example, what will be the cost to use conduit built in this manner and who decides what fair compensation is? Can a new fiber overbuilder by forced to use empty conduit even if it’s more expensive than some alternative form of construction? How do you deal with the numerous jurisdictional issues since there are widely different ways that state, local and private roads are built and paid for around the country.

Dig once is one of those ideas that instantly sounds like a good idea to anybody that hears it. But like most things that sound simple but which are really complex – if its done right it could do a lot of good, and if done poorly it could waste a lot of money and result in conduit that is never used. I’d hate to see this turn into another federal mandate that ends up building ‘bridges to nowhere’.

Using City Conduits and Fiber

innerduraFuturePathGroupI’ve seen a number of cities enact ordinances that require that empty conduit, or even conduit with fiber be put into open trenches. Some of these ordinances even insist that carriers use these assets rather than dig up the streets to put in new fiber. I can understand where the cities are coming from that do this. They are running out of underground rights-of-way in many places. Inevitably when somebody builds a new underground utility they end up cutting and disrupting the existing utilities. Cities also are getting tired of seeing the streets dug up over and over again to put in more fiber and streets are often not restored to their original condition after fiber construction.

But these city assets are not always as valued by carriers as much as cities might hope. Consider conduit. Having empty conduit can save the most expensive part of the cost of constructing a new fiber network. Trenching to install fiber under streets is incredibly expensive. But having empty conduit is of no use to a carrier unless there is access into and out of the fiber where carriers need it.

City-built conduit is probably very useful for a carrier that wants to build a fiber ring, But if a carrier is building fiber-to-the-home they need a lot of access to the fiber and want to have fiber splices multiple times per city block. They will want a handhold or some other way to tap into the fiber in the conduits wherever they have a customer. If conduit is just laid in the trenches without these multiple access points, then it is of limited use for a fiber-to-the-home system. Unfortunately, putting conduit with many handholds is a lot more expensive for a city compared to just dropping empty conduit into trenches when they are open.

Carriers have many more issues when it comes to sharing city fiber. Carriers share fiber all of the time. You can find examples in almost every sizable city where carriers have gone together to build fiber. They either band together to pay for a new fiber route, or else one carrier builds a route and then sells or leases dark fibers to other carriers.

So if this is a common occurrence, what is wrong with a city offering shared fiber? The big difference is that with private fiber somebody is clearly in charge. There is generally only one carrier that has actual physical access to the fiber, and this is done to help guarantee network integrity. Carriers love the idea of sharing the cost of building fiber, but they are uninterested in sharing fibers in a situation where they feel there aren’t iron-clad network controls on who has or doesn’t have access to the fiber.

Carriers have learned over the years through painful experience that when multiple companies can get access into fiber that bad things are eventually going to happen. Some technician is going to snip the wrong pair of fiber to make a splice, or in the worst case some renegade technician is going to sabotage a competitor. This is clearly a case where too many cooks will spoil the pot. For these reasons carriers are very careful about who they will share fiber with. I’ve seen carriers build second, duplicative routes rather than share fiber with somebody they don’t trust.

When carriers share fiber the sharing is accompanied by thick contracts that clearly define the rights and obligations of all of the parties involved in the sharing. There are almost always a guarantee for the quality of service on the shared fiber, expressed in terms of the maximum amount of downtime that can be expected – and this guarantee is generally backed-up by specified cash damages.

But governments don’t do that. When cities share fiber there are very few rules about how that is going to work. I can’t think of a carrier that would consider using a fiber without the accompanying controls on quality and integrity. Nobody wants to be on a fiber they don’t control and for which there are no guarantees of up-time or guarantees about how quickly outages will be fixed.

Before enacting these kinds of ordinances the city ought to have a long discussion with the existing carriers in their city. There are probably ways to make what they have in mind work. But to do so would probably mean partnering somehow with a carrier who would then act as the master controller of the fiber network.

If cities insist on forcing carriers to use city-provided conduit or fiber, they are going to be surprised when carriers don’t seem very interested. My fear is that there are a lot of city-built conduit and fiber that is going to end up like that bridge in Alaska that went nowhere. If a city builds builds something that carriers don’t want , then they have built something that might never be used.

Congress Considering Mandate for Conduit

innerduraFuturePathGroupThere is a bill making its way through Congress that ought to be of interest to the carrier community. It’s called the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act of 2015. It’s a bipartisan bill being sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Greg Walden (R-OR).

In a nutshell this requires that all federally funded highway construction projects include the installation of empty fiber conduits in cases where it is determined that an area has a need for broadband in the fifteen years after the construction. I have no idea who makes this determination.

There are a number of cities and counties around the country that have had this policy in place and it works, albeit slowly. People don’t realize it, but most local roads get rebuilt to some degree every thirty years, and so every year about 3% to 4% of roads in an area ought to be getting rebuilt. That number varies according to weather conditions in different parts of the country and according to how heavily a road is used. Roads that carry a lot of overweight loads wear out a lot faster. But federal interstate highways are built to a higher standard and are expected in many parts of the country to last up to forty years. And there are now some stretches of interstate highways that are fifty years old.

One has to wonder about how quickly there might be benefit from such a policy. Certainly any conduit put into urban stretches of highway would probably be grabbed up. But in a lot of places it might be a decade or more until the new conduit provides any real benefit. Once you get out of urban areas conduit is mostly used for long haul fiber, and so have having a patchwork of conduits here and there isn’t going to get many carriers excited.

But over time such a system will provide benefits as more and more stretches of a highway get empty conduits. The same thing has happened in the cities that have this policy. They hoped for a quick benefit for broadband when they introduced this kind of ordinance, but it often takes many years until there is enough conduit available to get any fiber provider excited. The place where almost any empty conduit is of immediate interest is if it runs through neighborhoods, because saving any construction costs on the last mile matters to a fiber builder.

The law is silent on how this conduit would be made available. I’ve worked with getting rights to government-owned fiber before and it has always been difficult. The government owner of a conduit doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as a carrier who is trying to build a fiber route. If you have to wait too long to get access to conduit you’re probably better off finding a different solution.

But it’s step in the right direction and over time this will produce benefits in some places. I also don’t know exactly what kind of roads qualify as receiving federal highway funding assistance. Obviously all interstate highways meet that test. But I’ve sat through many city council meetings where I’ve heard that state highway projects sometime get some federal funding assistance. If so, then this greatly expands the scope and potential of the law.

Similar bills have been bouncing around in congress since 2006 and never passed for one reason or the other. The White House is in favor of this bill as one more piece of the puzzle in promoting more broadband. The White House tried to implement an abbreviated version of this idea a few years ago through executive order, but apparently the implementation of that has been very spotty.

Like many good ideas that work their way up to Congress, this bill is probably twenty years too late. If this had been implemented at the time of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 then we would already have conduit all over the country that would provide cheaper transport. But I guess you have to start somewhere, so I hope this bill becomes law.

Too Much Fiber?

When communities consider building fiber, one of the first questions a community often asks me is how much fiber already exists in their community and how they can take advantage of it. The bad news I almost always have to give them is that their community probably contains several existing fiber networks that will be of little or no use to them. It seems there is a lot of fiber in the world that is not being put to good use.

So what do I mean by this? What I have found is that many communities have numerous existing fiber networks that have been built for one specific purpose and which can’t be used for anything else. Here are some examples:

  • K-12 Schools. School districts often own fiber networks to connect all of their schools.
  • Colleges. Colleges will often be on a different network than the other schools.
  • Traffic Lights. A number of cities now have fiber systems that feed traffic lights.
  • State Highways. They often have fiber network systems for cameras and electronic message boards.
  • Federal Highways. They build for the same reason as state highways.
  • Commercial networks. It’s more understandable why a network built by a telco, cable company, wireless company, or CLEC might not be available to a city, but most cities today contain a significant amount of fiber built by these companies.

I first ran into this issue in the late 90s when a city in Virginia asked me this question. I was helping them design a fiber network that would connect all of their government buildings. In doing so I discovered that there was already a fiber network built to traffic lights that probably already covered 80% of the network they were going to need – and they already owned it. But in looking deeper, we found that the traffic light network had been built with funds from the state highway department and that it had a prohibition in the funding language against sharing the network for other uses, including other uses by the city. That network was basically off-limits for any other use.

When you consider that building fiber can range in price from $25,000 per mile to place on poles, or $75,000 per mile to bury (in most places) or even up to $150,000 per mile in urban downtowns, it’s crazy to think that such money has been spent without considering all of the other benefits the outlay could have created.

I still see this all of the time and it is very common for a government-built fiber to be off limits to all commercial uses. But surprisingly there are often also prohibitions against other municipal uses. I can understand restrictions against commercial uses, even if I don’t like them. The fear is always there that when the government and commercial entities work together that it creates a chance for corruption. But this kind of fear should not be a reason to automatically write-off the opportunity for public-private partnerships.

I’ve always found that commercial companies are glad to share the cost of building a new fiber route. In the commercial world companies routinely share fibers and they typically create a clear division of the use of fiber pairs on a new route when multiple companies agree to share in the build costs. Governments could save a fortune if they would join into this well-established commercial practice of building fiber for more than one company.

But the restrictions of a government-owned fiber that precludes other parts of the government from using it are just wrong. When highway departments or universities or other big agencies build fiber and then don’t let other government agencies benefit from the expenditure something is very wrong and we have let bureaucracy override common sense. I often hear excuses for the practice such as the need for security, and frankly all such excuses are bosh.

I’ve told cities that there are two solutions when they run into this problem. One is to create a huge public stink so that the agency that won’t share the fibers might be shamed into doing the right thing. But the other fix is longer term, and that is to take full control of their rights-of-way. For example, one long-term fix is to require that anybody who digs a ditch in the ground must include empty conduit which will create a lot of opportunity for cheap fiber over time. But the best fix is for somebody in the city to act entrepreneurially and to get to know the fiber providers in town and develop partnerships with them. That is actually easier to do than you might think.