A line worker installs aerial fiber on a utility pole in western Massachusetts.

On February 11, The CT Mirror published a CT Viewpoints letter from Anthony Ditrio, chair of the Connecticut Association of School Administrators, entitled Expanded Access to High Speed Internet. In his letter, Ditrio states that “When it comes to broadband deployment, outdated regulations for utility pole access are still a significant barrier standing in the way of connecting over 14 million rural Americans.”

He goes on to say, “Providers must be granted access to use the poles by the pole owners, who are often local municipalities, electric companies or small utilities and co-ops.”

What does the problem of pole access look like in the real world? Before the buildout of a new fiber broadband network can begin, a critical process called make ready must occur. Make ready prepares poles to receive new fiber attachments and is outside the control of the network developer, a municipality or, currently, the state.

The backbone of a fiber network is the cable strung on utility poles throughout a community. In Connecticut, poles are most often owned by a large electric utility or telecommunications company, rather than a local municipality or small utilities and co-ops. For a private network builder to add new equipment to a pole, owner cooperation is critical. Existing wires often must be moved so the pole can meet Federal requirements for line spacing. Sometimes poles must be replaced.

Here are the steps that must happen with each and every pole.

  • The network builder or their designee contacts pole owners requesting to place a new fiber attachment on the pole.
  • The pole owner determines if there’s room for new equipment and if there are any safety issues. (All issues must be fixed before the network build can move forward.)
  • The pole owner sends the estimated make ready cost to the builder. These costs must be pre-paid before work will begin.
  • Every entity that has equipment attached to the pole must individually send workers to move wires, making space for the fiber attachment. Once this process is completed, the owner issues a work permit to the network builder.
  • The network builder can finally install fiber cable on the pole.

Since every company with attachments sends their approved contractor to move only their attachment, this process can be long, expensive, and complicated. Make ready can take many months and often even years to complete. Incumbent utilities sometimes delay or deny pole access to new providers for as long as possible in their own best interest, severely delaying build-out and installation of new networks.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) reported in this 2019 article, “…delaying pole preparation can be the death knell to community network projects that depend on public support and enthusiasm. Long delays drive up costs and increase impatience in a community, which is why incumbents trying to prevent competition have been in no hurry to prepare the municipal gain space for municipal fiber.” Passed in the early 1900s, the Municipal Gain Law gave local communities reserved, fee-free space on utility poles for telegraph wires. This is the space fiber will occupy.

Make ready has slowed the fiber broadband network build process to varying degrees in virtually every project Sertex has deployed. Currently on Block Island, the process is still ongoing, having taken 15 months as of February 2022. In Western Massachusetts communities, make ready took longer than anticipated in each of the 17 networks built by Sertex, dramatically delaying broadband access to residents desperately craving the service.

In August 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued their One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) order, a set of rules – not laws – designed to speed broadband deployment. Under OTMR, a single contractor is authorized to make all pole attachment changes at once, no matter who owns the equipment, a process that can speed, simplify and control the costs of this critical step.

Until OTMR becomes the law in Connecticut and all 50 states, fiber construction timelines will continue to be dictated by telecom giants.

Michael Solitro is founder and CEO of Sertex Broadband Solutions, an expert in fiber optic infrastructure deployment in the Northeast.