The Big Picture, Part II


Oct. 21, 2019

In Part I of this blog, I talked about broadband connectivity and how electric utilities can be part of the solution in certain areas of the country where the population is unserved or underserved. In Part II, I will discuss how the deployment of small-cellular antennae (small cells) to enable the fifth generation of wireless connectivity (5G) is likely not the answer to broadband connectivity in these rural areas and small towns. Moreover, I’ll review the illogical regulatory policies related to small cell pole attachments.

Let’s remember that infrastructure–and the expense of deploying infrastructure–is the biggest impediment to broadband deployment by telecommunications companies. When there are few customers per square mile, the payment on the infrastructure investment is much longer. That infrastructure equation does not change with the advent of small cells and 5G. Small cells only transmit over short distances, and are therefore more suited to dense urban or suburban areas, at least with current technology. So why do we keep hearing that small cells are the answer to rural broadband? Because telecommunications companies want carte-blanche access to utility poles in urban and suburban areas.

Let me explain. Because policymakers at the state and federal levels care deeply about rural broadband—as they should, and as do I—telecom companies use this issue as a red herring, claiming that they can only get 5G wireless technology out to rural areas if they can quickly and cheaply attach to utility poles.

Their argument goes like this: utilities are impeding our ability to deploy broadband to rural areas and win the race to 5G so policymakers must force utilities to bypass their safety and reliability analyses so we can accomplish these laudable goals by allowing us quick and cheap access to their poles.

Here’s the reality. About 100 years ago, when electric utilities were in their infancy and started sharing infrastructure with the telecom industry, communications wires were housed on the top of the poles with the electric lines below the communications lines. This set up a situation where maintenance of the communications lines required workers to climb around and over live electric lines. Sadly, that turned out to be fatal for some of these workers. It also resulted in fires and electrical outages. At that point, states stepped in and required the electric lines to be housed at the tops of the poles to help prevent these types of safety and reliability issues.

In a “back to the future” situation, some states have forgotten their history and have allowed small cells to be sited above live electric lines. This is not good. Nor is the fact that some state laws and now a pending docket at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seek to bypass the due diligence electric utilities undertake as they consider pole attachments. These analyses are necessary to ensure that overloading of poles is prevented. When poles are overloaded, they can fall or be damaged, thereby impacting electric reliability, not to mention the reliability of the telecommunications services as well. Ironically, electricity is required for telecommunications to operate, so you would think that there would be some concern about the stress that will be put on our electric systems.

Much less the cost. Cost-shifting and rent-seeking by telecom companies vis-à-vis pole attachments has been occurring for 30 years. Regulators seems to be okay with private telecom companies shifting their costs to electric ratepayers. This is not tenable over time.

With both federal and state energy regulators and policymakers upping the ante on their expectations of electric reliability and resilience, especially in the face of cyber and physical security concerns and in reaction to the slim potential for such high impact, but low probability threats like solar flares and electro-magnetic pulses, something has got to give. I just hope it’s not grid reliability. Remember, I want to win global races and I think you all do, too. It is important to note that all of us, utility and telecommunications representatives, are all citizens and therefore on the same team. The best teams win races; therefore the telecommunications providers need to be collaborating with us instead of treating us as adversaries.

The bottom line, we have to pay attention and tell the truth about these serious issues. Until we meet again…