In several recent columns, I have discussed the perils of installing underground fiber optic cables and how to locate the buried cables and pipes that represent danger to the contractor. Digging up or puncturing gas lines, water mains or cables can be dangerous and expensive. I was even reading an article recently about how many sewer pipes have been punctured in directional boring where the contractor never knew it. They just installed their conduits right through the sewer, leaving it to be discovered when the sewer clogged.
One would think aerial installations would be easier than underground installations. At least you can see all of the cables on the pole you must work on. But sometimes aerial installations are just as big a problem. Many poles have been around for decades. I swear some in our old hometown of Boston were a century old. After all that time, many cables have been installed on these poles, presenting obstacles to installing another, even a small fiber optic cable.
Around the corner from where I live in Santa Monica, Calif., is a line of poles that must be at least 50 years old. Originally installed by the electrical utility, the poles are tall and have high-voltage distribution lines and transformers for connecting the buildings along the streets and alleys.
Below the electrical wires are low-voltage cables. The oldest cables are copper telephone cables, heavy ones with many pairs. Some of these cables are quite big and use an ancient (technologically, that is) method to keep the pairs dry; they are pressurized by dry nitrogen. I know this because I found a nitrogen tank in an alleyway connected to cables on the pole.
Next up chronologically are the CATV coaxial cables. They are easy to spot because they are terminated in big aluminum boxes for amplifiers with ribs for heat dissipation. Following the CATV coaxial come the earliest fiber optic cables for the phone system. Then we have fiber optics for hybrid fiber-coaxial CATV systems that allowed them to offer broadband internet while the phone companies were stuck with dial-up modems.
Here in Santa Monica, the next generation of cables was for fiber-to-the-home. Verizon pioneered FiOS out here and developed the prefabricated installation methods that reduced the skills needed for field techs but left molded plastic patching boxes hanging from many poles.
Now, as I walk around town, I see more cables being installed for cellular “small cell” sites. Santa Monica has set aside 600 permits for small cells, and about a quarter are already taken. Most of the small cells will be installed on street light and utility poles.
What I see is mind-boggling. On some of the local utility poles, I have counted 10 cables in a single bundle. Single spans may have a CATV amplifier, two splice closures and a couple of “snowshoes,” those plastic fixtures used to hold excess fiber cables in service loops lashed to the current cables. I have watched installers in bucket trucks cutting ties and dropping splice closures to the ground to splice new cables. I saw one crew install a new messenger wire above the current cables and lash a new cable onto it.
The process of aerial installation starts with a permit, and at some point, the pole owner is supposed to participate in a “make-ready” for new cable installations. This process has been a point of contention with some new generation service providers who complain that pole owners have been stonewalling—delaying the make-ready to slow down their installations.
In response, alternative service providers have lobbied for what is called “one-touch, make-ready.” That means, when a permit is received, the installer can go to the pole, move cables they need to move themselves and install their cable. These companies have been successful in their lobbying efforts as the FCC now has made it a federal policy.
While this policy will certainly speed up installations of new networks, it has a dark side. If contractors doing underground installations can do as much damage as they have proven capable of, what about aerial installers? How many are aware of the dangers of working in close proximity to power lines and alongside traffic on public roads? And, if you are an aerial installer, what are your liabilities if something goes wrong?