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Telephone, Email, Morse Code, or Smoke Signal
Take a minute, look outside your window. For a lot of you, there’s a pretty good chance you will see a utility pole. After all, there is one pole for every 2 people in this country. Theres fiber on that pole that is driving a revolution.
Now, if you do happen to see one close by, look at the closest wire to the ground. The Communications Space. That wire is perhaps the most important backbone pushing the digital revolution in which we currently find ourselves. Everything from checking your email to streaming Netflix for hours on end relies on a series of pulses and signals being sent over that line. It could be an old copper telephone wire, but if you are lucky, it is over the lightning fast, high capacity, fiber optics being installed in that comm space all across the country.
Whether you are reading this as a seasoned OSP Veteran, or only having a passing interest in poles, you have doubtless heard of the fiber rush sweeping the world as we try to make data move as fast as the technological advancements we build to make use of it. What you may not know, is that the construction of this fiber will be a 175 Billion dollar industry over the next 10 years. By the end of that time, we will be sitting on the most advanced large scale communications platform in history. Yet, I am here to focus on the smallest details of building that platform, the pole data required to attach fiber to any pole.
As engineers all over the country work to build a communications platform of the future, they are stuck using a way of collecting and managing pole data, that is remarkably antiquated. While I can’;t speak for every utility, communication company, or contractor doing this work, I can offer what is perhaps an overly brief summary of what it takes to get fiber on a pole:
A communication company like the people you pay your cell phone or cable bill to decides to build fiber in a new neighborhood in, say East Detroit. They plan the build and start working with the local utility to begin the new attachment permitting process. Since the utility owns the poles, they get to decide exactly what data they want to have about each one. Who better to provide them with that data than the folks responsible for putting more equipment on the pole?
So, the communications company or one of its contractors goes out and collects everything from the location of the pole, to the heights of attachment, to the type of wood the pole is made from. Buy and large, the most common way of collecting that data is to use a traditional GPS, height stick and either a tablet or pen and paper. Once collected, that data is often manually entered into the pole loading software designated by the pole owner. Pole loading software is a whole different blog post, so suffice to say, it is a software that calculates the strength of a pole in given conditions. People can spend up to an hour entering that data for a single pole.
Once that is done, all of the data along with the pole loading results are put into the New Attachment Permit Request form for the utility and sent off. Then, within 45 days, the utility is expected to issue a permit. If they don’t get back to you, the general rule of thumb is that it is okay to go ahead and build. In a perfect world, permits are granted and everyone knows what’s happening on a pole, but as you might guess, like many areas of American infrastructure, things are far from perfect. Let’s recap that:
Perhaps you can already begin to see why the efficiency and accuracy in managing pole data is important. The data gathered at the pole is crucial to the speed and effectiveness of a fiber rollout. Without good data, any number of headaches can pop up for all parties involved. Comm companies could have to wait far too long to attach. Pole owners could be missing information and attachment fees while remaining liable if that pole were to fail. Most importantly though, errors in this data could cause the pole to become structurally weaker than anyone knows. Sure, none of those things are immediate showstoppers, but they certainly slow things down and leave a little bit too much room for error. Allow me to put it another way:
For much of my youth, I worked pouring the concrete foundations for custom homes. We would spend 3 days meticulously placing all the forms together for a pour. Then we would spend another two days with expensive survey grade equipment checking the height of every wall, every corner, and every slab. Then, we would pour for two hours. At first, it would eat at me how long it took to simply check the forms before we even poured. The concrete was going to be buried anyway, but as was explained to me by a giant Swede named Olin, the difference between building a house that lasts for 20 years and a house that last for 100 starts with the foundation. A millimeter difference between two walls is all that it takes to cause a floor squeak that grows into a floor failure 12 years later.
Make no mistake, the complexities in laying the foundation for a house pale to those of deploying a fiber network. Pole data is where those millimeters count. If the data are good, the foundation is strong, but if the little things like pole attachment and load data are pushed aside, things quickly start to weaken. Bad data has derailed major projects time and time again throughout history as shown Here. Be it the collapse of Enron or the catastrophic launch of New Coke, bad data can cost billions. All of the inefficiency and inaccuracy we currently find in that process will cause the metaphorical floor of this wonderful communications platform we are building to squeak if we are not careful. Who knows what that squeak could turn into.
There is hope though, people all over the industry are finding ways to automate the little things around pole data. They are eliminating transcription time and errors, providing more usable New Attachment Permit Requests, and digitizing data because they understand the work they are doing may not be the most glamorous, but it is the only thing paving the way for a reliable and fast communications infrastructure of the future.