Abandoned Telecom Infrastructure

I saw an article about Merrill, Oregon where the city was wrestling about what to do with an abandoned cable TV network hanging on poles in the City. It’s actually a fairly common occurrence to have abandoned telecom property on poles and I’ve been contacted by a number of cities over the years wondering what how to deal with the situation.

In this particular case the historic cable system in the city was operated by Rapid Communications out of Texas. That company sold cable properties to a number of companies in 2008 and the Merrill system went to Almega Cable Company, which stopped offering service in the City and went out of business in 2011.

There are all sorts of telecom assets that have been abandoned on poles and defunct cable companies are only one example. I saw a lot of WiFi mesh networks abandoned fifteen years ago as operators folded and never retrieved their equipment. There are numerous CLECs that folded in the late 1990s and that walked away from fiber networks on poles.

Having an abandoned set of wires on poles complicates the lives of any other pole users in the market. The unused wires take up space on poles and make it hard for anybody else to add additional wires onto the pole.

Abandoned networks also create havoc for the normal pole attachment process. This process requires buy-in from existing utilities to move or rearrange cables to make room for a new attacher. A new attacher can be paralyzed if they are unable to create the required clearance from existing wires.

In the end I’ve almost always seen the responsibility for getting rid of the network fall to the local government. Somebody has to go through the process of making certain there is no remaining active owner of the network before it can be condemned. Generally the pole owner is not willing to take on that role unless they have a need of their own to add wires to the poles.

Merrill is now undertaking the task of condemning the network. They have to follow law and post public notices to make sure that nobody claims rights to the cables. In the case of a cable company the City not only has to deal with the wires on poles, but also with customer drops and pedestals scattered throughout the community.

Merrill is hoping that some new carrier will want to use the cable network for overlashing fiber. Overlashing is the process of tying the fiber to existing wires and is generally the lowest cost method of fiber construction. But even if they find a taker for the offer my guess is that the new fiber provider is not going to want to assume ownership for the coaxial cables since that would give them liability for any issues or problems with the old wiring. So the City might end up owning the cables in perpetuity. If they don’t find a buyer, the city will have to pay to have the cables removed – although in today’s market there might be enough value in the copper inside the coaxial cables to offset the cost of removal.

We are going to see a lot more abandoned assets on poles in the future. We are just now entering a period when numerous companies are going to want to hang wireless devices of all types on poles. Some of these devices are tiny and I’ve seen others that are the size of a dorm refrigerator. It’s inevitable that some of the wireless deployments will fail, or that the wireless companies will lose the customers served by a given device.

Over time a significant inventory of abandoned wireless devices will likely grow in most cities. And unlike an abandoned cable network, my guess is that it’s often going to be hard to know which wireless devices have been abandoned or even who owns many of them. Cities ought to be considering ordinances today that require the companies that deploy wireless devices to somehow notify them of what they are doing and to also clearly label the ownership of each device.

But there is a movement at the FCC, in Congress and in States legislatures to institute rules for wireless carriers that would override any local rules. Such global rules are going to hinder cities in the coming decades when they try to deal with abandoned assets clogging their pole lines. Most of the proposed new rules I’ve seen don’t address this issue, which will make it messy to deal with later.