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.