Dig Once Rules Coming

US Representative Anna Eshoo of California has submitted a ‘dig once’ bill every year since 2009, and the bill finally passed in the House. For this to become law the bill still has to pass the Senate, but it got wide bipartisan support in the House.

Dig Once is a simple concept that would mandate that when roads are under construction that empty conduit is places in the roadbed to provide inexpensive access for somebody that wants to bring fiber to an area.

Here are some specifics included in the bill:

  • This would apply to Federal highway projects, but also to state projects that get any federal funding. It encourages states to apply this more widely.
  • For any given road project there would be ‘consultation’ with local and national telecom providers and conduit would be added if there is an expected demand for fiber within 15 years.
  • The conduit would be installed under the hard surface of the road at industry standard depths.
  • The conduits would contain pull tape that would allow for easy pulling of fiber in the future.
  • Handholes would be placed at intervals consistent with industry best practices.

This all sounds like good stuff, but I want to play devil’s with some of the requirements.

The initial concept of dig once was to never pass up the opportunity to place conduit into an ‘open ditch’. The cost of digging to put in conduit probably represents 80% of the cost of deployment in most places. But this law is not tossing conduit into open construction ditches. It instead requires that the conduit be placed at depths that meet industry best practices. And that is going to mean digging at a foot or more deeper than the construction that was planned for the roadbed.

To understand this you have to look at the lifecycle of roads. When a new road is constructed the road bed is typically dug from 18 inches deep to 3 feet deep depending upon the nature of the subsoil and also based upon the expected traffic on the road (truck-heavy highways are built to a higher standard than residential streets). Typically roads are then periodically resurfaced several times when the road surface deteriorates. Resurfacing usually requires going no deeper than a few inches into the roadbed. But at longer intervals of perhaps 50 years (differs by local conditions) a road is fully excavated to the bottom of the roadbed and the whole cycle starts again.

This means that the conduit needs to be placed lower than the planned bottom of the roadbed. Otherwise, when the road is finally rebuilt all of the fiber would be destroyed. And going deeper means additional excavation and additional cost. This means the conduit would not be placed in the ‘open ditch’. The road project will have dug out the first few feet of the needed excavation, but additional, and expensive work would be needed to put the conduit at the safe depth. In places where that substrate is rock this could be incredibly expensive, but it wouldn’t be cheap anywhere. It seems to me that this is shuttling the cost of deploying long-haul fiber projects to road projects, rather than to fiber providers. There is nothing wrong with that if it’s the national policy and there are enough funds to pay for it – but I worry that in a country that already struggles to maintain our roads that this will just means less road money for roads since every project just got more expensive.

The other issue of concern to me is handholes and access to the fiber. This is pretty easy for an Interstate and there ought to be fiber access at every exit. There are no customers living next to Interstates and these are true long-haul fibers that stretch between communities.

But spacing access points along secondary roads is a lot more of a challenge. For instance, if you want a fiber route to be used to serve businesses and residents in a city this means an access point every few buildings. In more rural areas it means an access point at every home or business. Adding access points to fiber is the second most labor-intensive part of the cost after the cost of construction. If access points aren’t where they are needed, in many cases the fiber will be nearly worthless. It’s probably cheaper in the future to build a second fiber route with the proper access points than it is to try to add them to poorly designed existing fiber route.

This law has great intentions. But it is based upon the concept that we should take advantage of construction that’s already being paid for. I heartily support the concept for Interstate and other long-haul highways. But the concept is unlikely to be sufficient on secondary roads with lots of homes and businesses. And no matter where this is done it’s going to add substantial cost to highway projects.

I would love to see more fiber built where it’s needed. But this bill adds a lot of costs to building highways, which is already underfunded in the country. And if not done properly – meaning placing fiber access points where needed – this could end up building a lot of conduit that has little practical use for a fiber provider. By making this a mandate everywhere it is likely to mean spending a whole lot of money on conduit that might never be used or used only for limited purposes like feeding cellular towers. This law is not going to create fiber that’s ready to serve neighborhoods or those living along highways.

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’.