Easing Fiber Construction

Almost every community wants fiber broadband, but I’ve found that there are still a lot of communities that have ordinances or processes in place that add cost and time to somebody trying to build fiber. One of the tasks I always ask cities to undertake is to do an internal review of all of the processes that apply to somebody who wants to build fiber, to identify areas that an ISP will find troublesome. Such a review might look at the following:

Permitting. Most cities have permitting rules to stop companies from digging up the streets at random, and ISPs expect to have to file permits to dig under streets or to get onto city-owned utility poles. However, we’ve run into permitting issues that were a major hindrance to building fiber.

  • One of my clients wanted to hang fiber on city-owned poles and found out that the city required a separate permit for each pole. The paperwork involved with that would have been staggering.
  • We worked in another city where the City wanted a $5,000 non-refundable fee for each new entity wanting to do business in the city. Nobody at the City could recall why the fee was so high and speculated that it was to help deter somebody in the past that they didn’t want working in the city.
  • I’ve seen a number of cities that wanted a full set of engineering drawings for the work to be done and expected no deviance from the plans. Very few ISPs do that level of engineering up front and instead have engineers working in front of construction crews to make the final calls on facility placement as the project is constructed.

Rights-of-Way. Cities and counties own the public rights-of-way on the roads under their control. Most cities want fiber badly enough to provide rights-of-way to somebody that is going to build fiber. But we’ve seen cities that have imposed big fees on getting rights-of-way or who want sizable annual payments for the continued use of the rights-of-way.

I’ve seen fiber overbuilders bypass towns that overvalue the rights-of-way. Many cities are desperate for tax revenues and assume anybody building fiber can afford high up-front fees or an ongoing assessment. These cities fail to realize that most fiber business plans have slim margins and that high fees might be enough to convince an ISP to build somewhere else.

Work Rules. These are rules imposed by a city that require work to be done in a certain way. For example, we’ve seen fiber projects in small towns that required flagmen to always be present even though the residential streets didn’t see more than a few cars in an afternoon. That’s a lot of extra cost added to the construction cost that most builders would view as unnecessary.

We’ve seen some squirrelly rules for work hours. Many cities don’t allow work on Saturdays, but most work crews prefer to work 6-day weeks. We’ve seen work hours condensed on school days that only allow construction during the hours that school is in session, such as 9:00 to 2:00. Anybody who has set up and torn down a boring rig knows that this kind of schedule will cut the daily feet of boring in half.

Timeliness.  It’s not unusual for cities to be slow for tasks that involve City staff. For example, if a City does their own locates for buried utilities it’s vital that they perform locates on a timely basis so as to not idle work crews. In the most extreme case, I’ve seen locate put on hold while the person doing the locates went on a long vacation.

We’ve also seen cities that are slow on inspecting sites after construction. Fiber work crews move out of a neighborhood or out of the town when construction is complete, and cities need to inspect the roads and poles while the crews are still in the market.

In many cases, the work practices in place in a city are not the result of an ordinance but were created over time in reaction to some past behavior of other utilities. In other cases, some of the worst practices are captured in ordinances that likely came about when some utility really annoyed the elected officials in the past. A city shouldn’t roll over and relax all rules for a fiber builder because such changes will be noticed by the other utilities that are going to want the same treatment. But cities need to eliminate rules that add unnecessary cost to bringing fiber.

We always caution ISPs to not assume that construction rules in a given community will be what is normally expected. It’s always a good idea to have a discussion with a city about all of the various rules long before the fiber work crews show up.

How Cities Affect Fiber Construction

Yesterday I wrote about the wish list cities have for the deployment of broadband. That got me to thinking about the ways that cities influence the fiber construction process, so today I am going to write about the flip side of that and talk about all of the ways that cities are involved in the fiber construction process. For anybody who has not been involved in fiber construction this will probably be an eye-opener. But let me preface this whole discussion by saying that the involvement in cities varies widely – some large cities can be relatively easy to work with and some small ones difficult – but generally the larger the city the more of the following processes are involved:

Rights-of-Way. Some cities require that anybody that wants to construct any utility in their city first get permission to use the rights-of-way. This process goes by various names and might be called a franchise agreement (which is different than the agreement to provide cable TV) or a right-of-way agreement. But for cities that require this, nothing else can be done until this is first approved. Some cities extract a ‘pound of flesh’ in the franchising process and may ask for use of fiber pairs or some other concession before granting approval to build fiber.

Permitting. Permitting is the process that can be the most time-consuming for a fiber builder. A permit generally requires getting approval for specific construction done at a certain time. Permit requests may require engineering drawings (something that most builders prefer to do only after the construction). Permitting can become onerous if too many permits must be filed (such as one for each block of construction), or if the permits are for short discrete time windows that can expire when there are construction delays.

Locating. Many cities do the locating of existing utilities. This is the process of marking where existing utilities are supposed to be before a fiber builder can dig up the street.

Traffic Control. Cities often get involved in traffic control. For example, they may require that parked cars are moved before construction. They might provide police or other traffic control when building on busy streets.

Placement of Devices. Many cities want approval of the placement of any hut, cabinet or other device. They may have rules that prohibit certain kinds of devices in certain neighborhoods. Probably one of the best examples of a poor policy was one in a western city that gave homeowners in a neighborhood the right to veto the placement of any cabinets. This meant holding mini-elections in neighborhoods.

Inspection. Cities generally inspect the construction process. They may inspect during the construction process to make sure that specifications from the permits are being met. They also usually inspect after construction to make sure that debris and dirt are cleared and that streets, sidewalks, and yards were returned to a clean condition. Just like any other kind of inspection, the in-process inspections often require the stoppage of work until inspectors do their job.

Paperwork. Many cities require specific paperwork to document the ‘as-built’ network. These are detailed engineering drawings that show what was built and where. Today some cities are starting to ask for electronic records instead, generally in an ESRI format to incorporate into their GIS systems.

Other Issues. Cities might have all sorts of other ordinances and rules that affect the construction process. For example, they might have a dig once, policy (something I discussed last week). They might require a fiber builder to use existing excess conduit. They might have aesthetic rules that require somehow hiding huts and cabinets.

Every one of these steps requires time, interface with city employees and paperwork. If done poorly, these processes can greatly slow the pace of fiber construction. For example, construction might be delayed until a city employee locates existing utilities. Then construction might only be able to proceed so far until an inspector approves. Or a rain delay might mess up a traffic control plan and create significant delays until that is reset. With so many different steps and processes there are ample opportunities for problems to arise. Often cities are not staffed to be able to accommodate a citywide fiber construction program and will need time to get ready.

I’ve found that cities who are active partners in getting a fiber network are usually willing to work to make the processes flow smoothly. But I’ve also seen cases where the city is a major impediment to timely fiber construction and can introduce significant delays and costs in the construction process. One function not listed is the liaison process with a city. We’ve seen it works best to ask the city to have a single point of contact to work through various issues during the construction process.