Just Say ‘No’ To Utility Poles

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | October 2009 Vol. 64 No. 10

It’s no surprise that utilities in new subdivisions typically are placed underground. But what’s really encouraging is that a growing number of cities and states are suggesting or, in some cases, actually stipulating that older lines should be moved underground when feasible.

At the recent FTTH Conference in Houston, various discussions frequently cited the advantage of underground construction. One speaker went so far as to preface his presentation by pointing out that overhead is not necessarily cheaper than underground. “There are just too many variables to nail down general costs,” said Patrick Sims of ADC. Rather, projects have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, he stressed.

Sims also pointed out the case of St. Peter, MN. In 1999, a tornado struck the town and, as so often happens, splintered utility poles netting in loss of utility services for some time. Resolving to not be so vulnerable in the future, the city placed a moratorium on the practice of hanging utility lines on poles, effectively forcing the utilities to rebuild underground. A short while later, the city went so far as to order all utilities to go underground within three years. Granted, St. Peter is a small town, but their actions were trendsetting – and for the right reasons.

Pole costs may also be changing. Federal rules allow cable television and telephone lines to be attached to poles of investor-owned electric utilities. In the early years of cable television systems, cities were very anxious to bring cable into their communities for a litany of business and quality of life reasons. Subsequently, cities often helped to influence sweetheart deals on pole fees for cable systems, often two - three times cheaper than what telephone companies were paying. Now, it looks like federal rules will be changed to uniform fee requirements, most likely rising cable fees to the telephone rates. Just one more factor bringing the perceived “cheaper” costs of overhead more in line with underground.

Obviously, such movement to the underground is good for our market, but the real winner is the rate-paying consumer who no longer has to worry about losing their phone, cable or electricity every time a storm is brewing or an auto accident knocks a poll down.