Is One Touch Make-Ready Really Faster?

The new federal rules for one-touch make ready (OTMR) finally went into effect on May 21, after having been passed by the FCC last November. For those not familiar with the term make-ready, this refers to any work that has to be done to a pole to make it ready to add a new wire, like a fiber cable. There are national safety standards that define the distance required between different kinds of wires and also clearance required from wires to the ground – and often existing poles can’t accommodate a new wire that meets all of the needed spacing. The make-ready that’s needed to get onto an existing pole often involves rearranging existing wires to create the needed clearance, or in drastic cases a replacement of an old pole with a taller pole.

The new OTMR rules apply only in the thirty states that follow FCC pole attachment rules. The FCC has strongly encouraged other states to implement something similar, but they are not mandated to do so. The new rules also don’t change the fact that poles owned by electric cooperatives and municipalities are exempt from federal pole attachment rules.

The new rules speed up the process of getting onto most poles – but as I’ve dug into the new rules, I’m not sure they are really going to drastically cut the timeline needed to build fiber on poles.

The most significant change in the rules is a new classification of poles as either simple or complex make-ready. The order defines how to make this classification. In real life practice, the new attacher will suggest this determination, although it could get overturned by the pole owners.

There are streamlined new rules and timelines for completing the make-ready on simple poles. If the pole owner is unwilling to commit to fixing simple poles in the needed time frame, then the new attacher is allowed to make the changes after properly notifying the pole owner. The new attacher is free to rearrange any existing wires as needed, again after having properly notified all of the parties. These new rules eliminate situations where a pole owner refuses to cooperate with a new attacher, as happened in a few cities where AT&T fought Google Fiber. Something to consider is that the rules require using a make-ready contractor that has been pre-approved by the pole owner – but there are ways around this in some circumstances.

This sounds like a huge improvement in the pole attachment process because new fiber builders now have a guaranteed process for getting onto poles with simple make-ready. In most places, the majority of poles ought to be classified as simple. This isn’t true everywhere and we’ve seen cities where the majority of poles are crowded and might be classified as complex.

The problem that still remains is any complex poles. Those are poles where the make-ready could cause damage to existing wires or where the old pole must be replaced. The make-ready process for complex poles has always been slow. The new rules tighten up time frames a little, but the time required to get onto a complex pole can still take a long time.

For complex poles the process will still allow the existing wire owners to work sequentially. This coordination has to be scheduled by the pole owner. The process could still take six months even if done perfectly. What’s troubling is that I still don’t see any easy resolution for when the pole owner on the existing attachers drag their feet on complex poles. Other than some slightly improved timelines, the work on complex poles looks to still be as dreadful as today.

What does this mean for aerial construction? Consider a long run of 30 poles where 2 of the poles require complex make-ready. The new attacher can get the make-ready done on the 28 simple poles more quickly than in the past. Those simple poles might be ready to hang the new fiber within 60-days. But new fiber still can’t be hung on this route until all 30 poles are ready.

A new fiber builder still faces the same bad choices they have today. They can wait six months or more for the complex make-ready to be completed. If the complex work bogs down the new attacher faces the prospect of going to the state regulatory commission for help – something that can add an additional six months. The only other alternative is to bury around the complex poles – something that can add a lot of cost, especially when there is rocky soil.

The one-touch make-ready rules would be awesome if networks were comprised mostly of simple poles. A fiber overbuilder could have fiber on poles within a few months of starting a project. However, the reality is that there are many poles in the world that won’t be classified as simple. Many urban poles are too short to add another wire and have to be replaced with taller poles. Poles at busy intersections can already hold a maze of wires. Some poles today are going to carry other impediments like small cell sites that are going to make it harder to add fiber.

We’re going to have to see these new rules in practice before we can conclude that one-touch make-ready provides a major benefit. The FCC’s motives for OTMR are good and they are trying to favor easier fiber construction. We’re just going to have to wait to see if the new rules make any actual difference with the overall timeline for aerial construction.

One Touch Make Ready

Earlier this month in WC Docket No. 17-84 and WT Docket No. 17-79 the FCC released new rules for one touch make ready (OTMR) for connecting wires to poles. These new rules allow a new attacher to a pole to use a single contractor to perform simple make-ready work, which they define as work where “existing attachments in the communications space of a pole could be transferred without any reasonable expectation of a service outage or facility damage and does not require splicing of any existing communication attachment or relocation of an existing wireless attachment.” These new rules will go into effect on February 1, 2019 or sooner, after 30 days, if the new rules are published in the Federal Register announcing approval by the Office of Management and Budget.

The OTMR rules don’t apply to more complex make-ready work where poles need to be replaced or where existing cables must be cut and spliced to accomplish the needed changes. The new rules don’t cover wireless attachments, so this is not an order that lets wireless companies place devices anywhere on poles at their choice (something the wireless companies are lobbying for). These rules also don’t apply to any work done above the power space at the top of poles.

For those not familiar with make-ready, a new attacher must pay to rearrange existing wires if there is not enough space on the poles for the new wire to meet safety standards. In most cases this can be accomplished by shifting existing wires higher or lower on the pole to create the needed clearance.

Possibly the most interesting part of the new order is that the FCC says that a new attacher is not responsible for the cost of fixing problems that are due to past attachers being out of compliance with safety codes. The reality is that most make-ready work is due to past attachers not spacing their wires according to code. This FCC language opens the door for new attachers to argue that some of the cost of make-ready should be charged to past attachers. Anybody who wants to make such claims needs to photograph and document existing violations before doing the work. I can foresee big fights over this issue after the make-ready work is completed.

 These rules end some of the practices that have made it time consuming and costly to put a new wire on a pole. Existing rules have allowed for sequential make-ready, where each existing utility can send out a crew to do the work, adding extra time as each separate crew coordinates the work, as well as adding to the cost since the new attacher has to pay for the multiple crews.

The new rules don’t apply everywhere and to all pole owners. There is still an exception for poles owned by municipalities and by electric cooperatives. The rules also don’t automatically apply to any state that has its own set of pole attachment rules. There are currently 22 states that have adopted at least some of their own pole attachment rules and the states still have the option to modify the new FCC rules. Expect delays in many states past the February 1 effective date as states deliberate on the issue. Interestingly, there are also two cities, Louisville, KY and Nashville, TN, that have already adopted their own version of OTMR and the order does not say if local governments have this right.

The order considerably shortens the time required to perform simple make ready. There are many nuances in the new time line that make it hard to condense to a paragraph, but the time lines are considerably shorter than the previous FCC rules. The FCC also shortened the time line for some of the steps for complex make-ready. Unfortunately, in many cases it’s the complex make-ready time lines that will still impact a project, because a few poles needing complex make ready can delay implementation of a new fiber route.

The order encourages pole owners to publish a list of contractors that are qualified to do the make ready work. The new rules also define the criteria for selecting a contractor in the case where the pole owner doesn’t specify one. Pole owners can veto a suggested contractor from the new attacher, but in doing so they must suggest a qualified contractor they find acceptable. Not mentioned in the order is the situation where a utility insists on doing all work themselves.

As a side note, this order also prohibits state and local governments from imposing moratoria on new wireless pole attachments. The ruling doesn’t stop states from imposing new rules, but it prohibits them from blocking wireless carriers from getting access to poles.

Overall this is a positive order for anybody that wants to add fiber to existing poles. It simplifies and speeds up the pole attachment process, at least for simple attachments. It should significantly hold down pole attachment costs by allowing one contractor to do all of the needed work rather than allowing each utility to bill for moving their own wires. There are still some flaws with the order. For instance, although the time frames have been reduced, the pole attachment process can still take a long time when complex pole attachment work is needed. But overall this is a much needed improvement in the process that has caused most of the delays in deploying new fiber.