Evolving Telecom/Electric Realities

December 2012, Vol. 67 No. 12

When Google began its much-ballyhooed installation of fiber service in the Kansas City area, local residents rejoiced in the experiment that would potential bring them a much faster and capable service. The downside is that Google has contracted with existing utility-poll owners to hang virtually their entire backbone overhead. While easier to install and sometimes initially cheaper, history has demonstrated time and time again that in the long run, the risks of open-air installation for something as fragile as fiber proves a poor long-term investment -- especially in the Midwest with its plethora of weather issues ranging from ice storms to tornados.

So it was refreshing to discover another system being installed in North Carolina that will rival the Google program in almost every way, but with one significant and life-cycle responsible difference – the entire system is being installed underground for reasons of security, reliability and weather protection. (See story on page XX).

As modern underground construction costs continue to evolve and become more competitive, the traditional thinking based upon flawed and antiquated data should be abandoned and decisions based on the current paradigm that underground installs are often a better solution.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss overhead vs. underground with a couple of different system owners. While each had different construction and operational dynamics at work in their communities, the bottom line was that when they considered all the local factors, going underground with their system was not only better for life cycle and maintenance costs, but was also cost competitive.

Traditionalists will scoff at abandoning a practice they’ve been following for decades. But fiber is a far cry from old-style copper wire. It is much more sensitive and must function at a tremendously more complex level. Further, when the practice of attaching electric lines to polls began, most of the modern underground electric equipment and methods weren’t developed yet.

The bottom line is that the technology and methods of underground installation have evolved to the point that electric (especially distribution) and fiber owners must be open-minded and thorough in examining whether to go underground or risk hanging lines overhead. The old justifications for hanging lines have largely disappeared. It is time to embrace the new construction dynamic.