Competitive providers get creative in local permitting processes

Every service provider, whether it be a traditional ILEC or a competitive provider, continues to find that the largest challenges lie in dealing with state and local government agencies and gaining utility rights-of-way along existing aerial poles.

A group of competitive providers, including FirstLight Fiber, Fibertech and FiberLight, addressed these issues during a Comptel Plus trade show panel called "Fiber, Fiber Everywhere: The Intersection of Industry Government and Policy."

One of the most common issues is dealing with the "make ready" process to gain access to utility poles. Timelines to get through the make ready process vary from 180 days up to a year, a major barrier that often holds up the buildout of network facilities.

In one fiber buildout, FirstLight Fiber had to build 60 miles of cable, 10 miles of which were on aerial public utility poles. Facing pressure from states to ensure greater service reliability during storms, electric utilities are upgrading their poles to Class 2 poles, which are larger and more expensive.

James Capuano, senior vice president and chief of network operations for FirstLight Fiber, said this trend places a burden on service providers trying to connect their fiber along these rights-of-way.

"By making these changes, and with the way the make ready process works, the next service provider that goes usually picks up the tab for the work that has to be done," Capuano said. "On this particular build, 10 miles ended up being approximately $788,000, which when we did our estimate we expected $40,000 to $60,000 so there would be very few products that we have that would carry enough revenue to make an $800,000 make ready work."

The service provider then had to work with the utility commission, which acted as a mediator to work through the process.

"We didn't get a final answer of something that was truly acceptable other than to reduce the cost, but from a regulatory perspective, the issue is still out there," Capuano said. "We're running in other areas so it's not just this one utility, but they're also sharing notes on how to improve their networks on some of the backs of some of these other projects."

FiberLight, a growing competitive provider that's been growing its customer base amongst both enterprises and the burgeoning wireless backhaul market, found similar issues in conducting its ongoing 8,100 mile fiber network build in Texas.

Due to the size of its build in west Texas, FiberLight's faced a challenging permitting process because local permitting offices became overwhelmed with requests from them and the state's traditional oil and gas utility companies.

"Over 6,000 miles of our fiber is on textile right-of-way so one of the big challenges there was we overloaded their system," said Ron Kormos, chief strategy officer for FiberLight. "With us along with the oil and gas industry, you don't realize how many permits the oil and gas industry submits on an everyday basis so we had to face that issue."   

Because their fiber build goes through a number of rural areas, FiberLight also had to deal with a number of electric cooperatives that have placed facilities on their members' private property.

"We had over 50 electric cooperatives to deal with and when you get into pole attachments, we found a lot of poles are located on private property," Kormos said. "Because they are owned by their members, they don't go in a straight line so we started finding it was almost easier to bury fiber and almost 90 percent of our network in Texas is buried fiber."

Besides dealing with utilities, environmental issues are also a concern. In Texas, a service provider or anyone could be fined up to $10,000 if they kill a Houston Toad.

"Since they bury themselves slightly in the ground, finding these toads is very difficult and that slowed our project down," Kormos said. "We had to get special permits from environmentalists who cleared the way for us."

For Fibertech, which has completed its 1,000-mile fiber buildout in Ohio, its latest market shows that service providers need to be creative in dealing with local municipalities and utility companies.

In Cleveland, Fibertech had to deal with a resident who thought the attachments it was putting on a pole near their house was not aesthetically pleasing.

"A couple of months ago we were building fiber in Cleveland and we were putting up an attachment on a pole and there was a resident that was unhappy with us building and felt like they were getting an eyesore right outside of their house," said Drew Mullin, director of product and business development for Fibertech. "Finally we just said why don't we buy a tree for them for their front lawn and block that for them and they were as pleased as punch so the municipality was happy because their resident was happy and they got the fiber in their town."

Besides being creative, Mullin said it's good to place people in each market to get a clear understanding of local laws and ordinances, particularly in cities and towns which vary widely.

"We've learned the laws of the different regions that we have and every region has a different set of laws," Mullin said.

Despite these issues, Fibertech has been seeing interesting applications for its fiber facilities in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities it serves. One of its clients, a car wash, is using the network for its video monitoring system for cars going in and out of its locations.

"We all know the big verticals we have in terms of hospitals, financial companies and lots of others, but we sell to a car wash located in Buffalo and Rochester," Mullin said. "They said they have car washes around the Northeast and take videos of each customer's car when it goes in and out of the car wash because they get so many claims of people saying they damaged their cars."

Related articles:
FirstLight Fiber, Maine Fiber Co. deliver IP services to Maine's underserved areas
Fibertech wraps its 1,000-mile Ohio network expansion
FiberLight brings fiber to 600 cell sites, installs 5,500 route miles across Texas