Ringing in 2019 – Reflecting on a Decade of Utility/Telecom Joint Use Change

January 16, 2019 — Gary Miller

Happy 2019! Ringing in the New Year, of course, always provides an opportunity to reflect on the one that has just passed, or even on more than one. As I did that this year, I realized that because the first deployment of SPANS, SSP’s joint use communication and management software application, went live on September 30, 2008, I had an opportunity to look back at 10 full years of joint use, subscriber experience, and system change.

10 Years of Change in the Joint Use Business

The first area of my reflection was the joint use business as a whole. Here are some of my conclusions.

You Need a Score Card
The first thing that came to mind was that over the past 10 years, telecom industry consolidation and the entry of new players into the telecom business had changed the notable names in telecom a great deal. Companies, or at least company names, that didn’t exist in 2008 were among the most active telecom entities in the country, at least with regard to their investment in new infrastructure, and so in their involvement in the joint use of utility poles.

2009 – Ouch
Looking back at 2009, I was also struck by the obvious. 2008, 2009, and even 2010 were, economically speaking, some pretty bad years. And that too had an impact on the joint use business. Among the initiatives that the federal government pushed forward in response to the great recession, was an economic stimulus package signed into law in February, 2009 by President Obama. That package included $7.2B for broadband grants and loans under the heading “Broadband Technology Opportunities Program”. The goal of the program was to “award competitive grants to accelerate broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas and to strategic institutions that are likely to create jobs or provide significant public benefits”. The program did advance broadband deployments in some rural areas, and as a result generate some joint use activity. Unfortunately still today, many rural areas remain internet under-served.

Things that Didn’t Quite Happen
Another notable initiative over those years was one that promised to bring high-speed internet, not too rural locations, but rather to cities. In the same period when economic stimulus money was being used to build rural broadband, a number of municipal broadband deployment programs were also being championed. Google Fiber is the key name to remember when considering these efforts, but there were also a number of similar independent citywide high-speed internet initiatives attempted in those years. Those programs caused some buzz, a flurry of joint use work in a few metro areas, and even some litigation and regulation. Unfortunately though, the full potential of citywide broadband deployments was never realized, and most such plans have now been abandoned.

Politics and FCC Activism
Another thing that was obvious about the 2009 to 2018 period was that there had been a change in the US presidency. And while joint use pole attachments may seem pretty apolitical, pole attachments are regulated by the FCC, and the FCC chairman is appointed by the president, and so, the agenda of the FCC, and the regulatory actions that it takes, are affected by politics. During the period in question, the FCC had been pretty active in the issuance of new or revised pole attachment regulations. The two most notable regulatory actions within that period were the adoption of an FCC-defined timeline for pole attachment applications in 2011, and the issuance of regulation associated with One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) in 2018. Notably, the 2018 regulation modified the timeline that the FCC had issued in 2011. Reality often lags behind regulation, but the effects of both of these regulatory changes will continue to affect the joint use business for the foreseeable future.

5G Deployment and Wireless Antennas
The final industry phenomenon that my reflection brought me to was the ongoing flurry of activity associated with the accelerating deployment of 5G cellular networks and wireless antennas. Both of these technology directions have had significant impact on joint use pole attachment activities over the past decade. The race to build out 5G networks has resulted in a great deal of pole attachment activity, and the special technological and safety issues that differentiate wireless antennas from other pole attachments continue to impact the utility/telecom joint use business in a number of ways.

10 Years of Change for Subscriber 1

Like I said in my introduction, the first SPANS subscriber went live on September 30, 2008. The second area of my decade back reflection involves a look at how the joint use world changed for that first subscriber over a 10-year period. I’m leaving the subscriber’s name out, but for context, I’ll explain that it’s an electric utility that serves over 1,000,000 customers, and owns or uses more than 850,000 poles.

Old Friends and Newer Friends
The utility business is almost unique in the length of service that it enjoys from its dedicated employees. It’s rare in most industries to find so many people who work for the same company for 20, or 30, or more years, but it’s not that uncommon to find people like that in the utility industry. And so, some of the same people that I was working with when we deployed SPANS for that first subscriber are still working for the same utility. But, over a 10-year period, there has been some turnover. Retirements and advancement mean that some of the friends that I worked with back then aren’t there anymore. Along the way though, other people have filled those roles, and so a hybrid set of old and newer friends continue to support the joint use activities of the company.

Organizational, Process, and Technology Changes, but No More Staff
As you would expect, the utility has implemented organizational, process, and technology changes that affect their joint use business over the past decade. Some of those changes have been in reaction to external changes, while others have been driven by internal decisions. Some joint use functions are handled in a more centralized manner than they were a decade ago. Some joint use processes have been modified or adapted to meet changing needs. Some of the relevant information systems of the company have undergone meaningful changes over the past 10 years. One thing that hasn’t changed is that the number of people assigned to support the joint use function of the business hasn’t increased over that time.

Constantly Increasing Volume
Noting the absence of a significant increase in joint use staffing is especially relevant because the last subscriber-related aspect of the past 10 years that I looked at was the volume of joint use activity. Subscriber 1 had 10 years of joint use data in SPANS, so I logged in, ran a report, and did some analysis. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find an increase, even a meaningful increase, in the volume of joint use activity over the past decade. I was, though, surprised to see just how constant and dramatic the increase in joint use activity was. The chart below shows the number incoming joint use proposals received by the company during each of the past 10 years. The significant majority of these proposals are attachment permit applications, and each one covers one or more poles (11 poles per proposal, on average, over the decade).

ju-01

Looking at the chart, the data is pretty striking.  Except for a slight drop-off from 2011 to 2012, every year presented an increase in incoming proposals compared to the prior year.  Over the 10-year period, the number of incoming proposals grew from just under 600 to over 2100.  In 2018, the utility received 3.6 x as many joint use proposals as they had in 2009.  That is an amazing and sustained increase in volume.  I was so surprised by it, that I ran some reports that looked at the volume increase over time for some other SPANS subscribers.  Each was different, but the 3.6 multiplier wasn’t outside of the range of the numbers that I was finding for other utilities.  The other thing that struck me about the growth was that in 2008, the utility had seen a need to implement a system in order to more effectively manage its joint use proposals, presumably in a year when they would have received approximately 500 incoming proposals.  In 2018, they received approximately 4 x as many proposals.  Perhaps, they were prophetic, but more likely, they were just good managers.

10 Years of Change in SPANS

As I said at the start of this post, SPANS is SSP’s joint use communication and management software application.  And as the joint use industry was experiencing a decade of change, SPANS was also evolving.  The final area of my reflective consideration was the ways that SPANS had changed over the past decade.

PoleView
SPANS was first deployed in 2008, but at that time, it didn’t offer the ability to view and select poles from a map.  Since before SPANS was a product, we’d envisioned a map interface, but it took us a few years to design and build PoleView™, and to introduce it to the market.  Today, PoleView is every SPANS user’s favorite part of the system, and I can’t imagine giving a SPANS demonstration that didn’t include PoleView.

Sequenced Construction
Another core functionality of the system that wasn’t supported in the initial release of SPANS was “sequenced construction”.  Sequenced construction is the SPANS functionality that allows multiple attachers to receive automatic notifications when transfers by other attachers have been completed.  This functionality is an enormous benefit in the communication and coordination of attachment transfers when a pole replacement requires multiple attachers to transfer to the new pole in a particular order.

Reporting Advancements
Along with those two major enhancement areas, lots of other changes were made to SPANS over the past decade.  Some of those changes were “under the hood” while others introduced new options and functionality to users.  I’m not going to bore anyone with a list of changes, but I do think that the reporting advancements that were deployed in SPANS over the past decade have made the system more capable in a really meaningful way.

GIS Interfaces
Maybe what’s more exciting than the things that changed within SPANS, is the fact that today, many SPANS subscribers receive GIS updates from SPANS.  On a daily basis, GIS update messages are generated by SPANS and delivered to subscriber IT/GIS systems and staff.  SPANS is talking to the enterprise systems of our subscribers, and so reducing the back office effort associated with joint use pole attachment record keeping.

FCC Timeline
In discussing politics and FCC activism above, I mentioned the FCC’s introduction of its attachment permitting timeline in 2011.  In response to that regulation, many SPANS subscribers received configuration changes to make it easier to track and report on performance vs. the FCC timeline.

Antenna Applications
I also mentioned the unique requirements associated with wireless antenna attachments as a meaningful change that has affected joint use over the past decade.  As with the FCC timeline, a number of SPANS subscribers have implemented configuration changes in order to process antenna applications via an antenna-specific SPANS workflow.  These changes are aimed at ensuring the safety of utility workers and the general population.

Subscriber, User, and Deployment Growth
Finally, the 10 years that I was considering were marked by dramatic growth in the number of SPANS subscribers, users, and deployments.  On January 1, 2009, there was one SPANS subscriber, and the system was deployed in one US state.  Today there are more than 25 SPANS subscribers, and the system is deployed in 10 US states.  The number of users has similarly grown from hundreds to thousands.  That, as you can imagine, is a change that affects the SPANS support team every day.  In response, we continue to deploy tools to allow us to efficiently support SPANS and its larger user population, and to deliver what we hope to be really, really responsive support services.

I know that the next year and the next decade will bring more changes, and that every future January 1 will offer an opportunity to reflect.  I’ll wrap this up now by wishing everyone a happy and prosperous 2019, and saying thank you to anyone who took time out of their new year to read my reflective thoughts.

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