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.