Powering progress together: The vital role of make-ready utility work in fiber expansion

Atwell power and energy make-ready utilities

By Jesse Zellmer, Senior Director

In the rapidly evolving landscape of telecommunications, the expansion of fiber networks stands as a pivotal development, reshaping how we connect and communicate. According to a report by the Fiber Broadband Association, the U.S. saw an unprecedented level of fiber deployment in 2023, with over 35 million homes having access to fiber services—a significant increase from previous years. This rapid expansion underscores the critical need for efficient and effective make-ready utility work.

Over my 19-year career in service to the utilities industry, I’ve developed a deep respect for the teams that take this on. This field’s complexities and immense potential are important to understand in order to ensure the safe and efficient deployment of these assets, which is enabling connectivity for millions of people. This is especially important when it comes to forging strong partnerships with utility companies, who are often managing the priorities of the third-party attacher (a fiber network owner, such as a telecomm company), the customer, and their own utility goals.

Understanding make-ready utility work

Make-ready utility work involves preparing existing utility poles and infrastructure to accommodate new attachments–in this case, fiber optic cables. This process is not just about adding new lines; it’s a meticulous task that involves ensuring compliance with safety standards, optimizing space on utility poles, and sometimes even replacing or reinforcing existing structures to handle additional capacity. The challenges are multifaceted, ranging from technical and logistical hurdles to regulatory compliance issues.

To illustrate, let me share a remarkable incident our team encountered. During a routine assessment for a make-ready project, we discovered a utility pole that had become an unintended part of a local shed. The pole, with all its wires and fixtures, was completely built into the structure, emerging through the roof. This unusual situation not only posed a unique challenge, but also highlighted the unpredictable nature of make-ready work. It underscored the importance of thorough site assessments and creative problem-solving, aspects that are central to our approach at Atwell.

Such scenarios are not just about technical resolution, but also involve navigating property rights, coordinating with multiple stakeholders, and ensuring that all solutions are compliant with safety regulations. This example serves as a testament to the complex and often surprising nature of make-ready utility work, where each project can present its own unique set of challenges and learning opportunities.

fiber networks make-ready utilities

The partnership approach

The essence of successful make-ready work lies in collaboration. I recently read a study by Deloitte highlighting the importance of partnerships in the utility sector, emphasizing that collaboration can lead to innovative solutions and improved efficiency. Throughout my time at Atwell, we’ve seen firsthand how working closely with utility companies not only streamlines the make-ready process, but also fosters a deeper understanding of each other’s capabilities and constraints.

Mike Surran, Project Manager at CORE Electric Cooperative, shared, “Atwell’s expertise in make-ready utility work has been invaluable to us. Their innovative and precise approach significantly streamlines our ability to support fiber network expansion driven by our communication partners, ensuring safety and efficiency. Atwell is more than a service provider; they are an integral partner in our mission to enhance connectivity.”

In another instance, Atwell has partnered with a local rural electric cooperative as they support the attachment of telecom-owned fiber optic networks to their existing utility infrastructure. Throughout the project’s lifetime, thousands of poles, spans, and assets have been field-checked for a safe attachment environment.

Safety and compliance: A joint responsibility

Safety and regulatory compliance are paramount in make-ready work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as well as the National Electric Safety Code (NESC) outlines strict guidelines for utility work, emphasizing the need for adherence to safety standards. By collaborating, Atwell and our utility partners ensure that every project not only meets but often exceeds these standards, ensuring the safety of workers and the public.

In addition to simply following the requirements set forth by the NESC, one must also take a step back and make sure that the minimums will still work for the application. Years ago, a third-party communication attacher installed their facilities on a client’s pole line, but took advantage of an exception to Rule232B1. This rule allowed them to reduce the ground clearance to 9.5 feet from 15.5 feet because the line was on the other side of a deep ditch which they determined was not traversable by vehicles. However, years later, the customer near the line decided to pour a new concrete patio. A cement truck contractor built a bridge across the ditch and attempted to drive underneath the line. Because of the reduced clearance, the cement truck caught the communication cable, tore the line down, and created a high-energy fault that started a fire.

Knowing the high impact and risk associated with maintaining a high voltage power grid, good engineering judgement must always be taken to make the best decision for the health and safety of the community.

Innovative solutions in make-ready work

Innovation is key in addressing the unique challenges of make-ready utility work. We leverage the latest technologies, including advanced GIS mapping and 3D modeling, to plan and execute our projects with our utility partners. These tools allow for precise planning and can significantly reduce the time and cost associated with make-ready processes.

A critical aspect of our innovative approach is our ability to use multiple methodologies to capture the required data for make-ready projects. This includes the use of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, which can be collected through various means, such as drones or fixed-wing aircraft. LiDAR provides high-resolution, three-dimensional information about the physical characteristics of the site, allowing for detailed analysis and planning.

Additionally, we utilize manual data capture systems like Katapult, which offer a more hands-on approach to data collection. This method is particularly useful in environments where automated systems might not be as effective (like corridors heavily covered in trees) or in situations that require a human touch for accuracy and detail. Katapult ultimately provides a side-by-side visual comparison, allowing the utility to ensure compliance in the engineering phase as well as being able to compare after construction.

By combining these diverse methodologies, we can tailor our data collection process to best suit the specific requirements of each project. This flexibility not only enhances the efficiency of our make-ready work, but also ensures a higher level of accuracy and reliability in our planning and execution. The integration of these advanced technologies and methodologies underscores our commitment to delivering top-tier solutions in the utility sector.

The scale of fiber expansion in the U.S.

The scale of fiber installation in the United States is monumental and is being further propelled by state-run programs. A prime example is the Texas Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Authorized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the BEAD program has allocated a substantial $3.3 billion to Texas. This funding is dedicated to supporting infrastructure deployment, mapping, adoption, and planning, creating a competitive process for potential subrecipients to apply for funding.

Texas is not alone in this endeavor. Similar initiatives are underway across various states, each tailored to meet the unique needs of their communities and to bridge the digital divide. These programs are not just about expanding internet access; they represent a commitment to future-proofing our nation’s infrastructure and ensuring that no community is left behind in the digital era.

The impact of these state-run programs is significant. They not only accelerate the expansion of fiber networks, but also ensure that the benefits of high-speed internet are equitably distributed. This is a crucial step towards creating a more connected and technologically-advanced society.

Preparing for the future: Fiber expansion and beyond

As the demand for high-speed internet continues to grow, the importance of fiber expansion cannot be overstated. We are not just keeping pace with this growth; we are actively working to shape the future of utility infrastructure.

Matt Rosser, Senior Vice President of Energy at Atwell, shares: “As we navigate the complexities of today’s utility landscape, Atwell remains committed to being at the forefront of innovation and collaboration. Our involvement in make-ready utility work, especially in the context of the fiber expansion to create equitable access of connectivity, is a testament to our dedication to not only meeting but exceeding the needs of our clients and communities. We’re proud to play a pivotal role in this transformative era, ensuring that every project we undertake is a step towards a more connected and technologically advanced future.”

The journey of fiber expansion is a testament to the power of collaboration in the utility sector. I am proud to be at the forefront of this journey with my team, working hand-in-hand with utility companies to navigate the complexities of make-ready work. Our commitment to safety, innovation, and partnership is unwavering, and we are excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.

We invite utility companies and potential partners to reach out to us at Atwell. Let’s discuss how we can work together to meet the challenges of today and pave the way for the innovations of tomorrow.

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