Evolving Telecom/Electric Realities

As I write this column, it has been about two weeks since the presidential election. In conversations with many industry people, the topic is always what lies ahead for the next four years and can we still transition into a reasonably healthy business environment?

Contrary to what many believed, the re-election of President Obama has not caused the world to end (at least not yet). But no matter whom you supported or which way your political opinions lean, the election’s results have business people concerned – and rightly so. The administration’s domestic policies have, and potentially will, lead to higher taxes and, at least to some degree, a confining business environment.

That adds up to another four years of political turmoil. But with the well-documented financial cliff awaiting our country’s path, there will have to be some serious compromise and course-correction for us to avoid a European-type of financial melt-down. More on potential market impacts will be included in my January column.

Underground in the telecom & electric world
Going underground with electric transmission power lines has always been a dicey prospect at best. The heat generated by overhead transmission lines is so great that cables fail when in a confined, underground conduit. But here’s where I can get on board with the modern green movement. No one likes looking out their front window at the eyesore of electrical transmission polls, plus the danger of live, high-voltage electric cables directly overhead where they walk and their children play, at the mercy of Mother Nature or human accidents.

Going underground is the obvious yet historically limited and expensive solution. Modern science has been working on the problem for some time and is now experiencing success. A recent project to install more than 6,200 feet of electrical transmission lines in Orange Beach, AL, via horizontal direction drilling is a prime example. The use of intersect boring combined with advances in cable design and manufacturing, plastics for insulation and improvements in thermal grout made possible – and economically viable – a project that just a few years ago would have been considered too costly and impossible to build.

The experience of this project and an increasing number of others is steadily feeding further development and desire to place transmission lines underground. Read the story on page XX.

When Google began its much-ballyhooed installation of fiber service in the Kansas City area, local residents rejoiced in the experiment that would potential bring them a much faster and capable service. The downside is that Google has contracted with existing utility-poll owners to hang virtually their entire backbone overhead. While easier to install and sometimes initially cheaper, history has demonstrated time and time again that in the long run, the risks of open-air installation for something as fragile as fiber proves a poor long-term investment — especially in the Midwest with its plethora of weather issues ranging from ice storms to tornados.

So it was refreshing to discover another system being installed in North Carolina that will rival the Google program in almost every way, but with one significant and life-cycle responsible difference – the entire system is being installed underground for reasons of security, reliability and weather protection. (See story on page XX).

As modern underground construction costs continue to evolve and become more competitive, the traditional thinking based upon flawed and antiquated data should be abandoned and decisions based on the current paradigm that underground installs are often a better solution.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss overhead vs. underground with a couple of different system owners. While each had different construction and operational dynamics at work in their communities, the bottom line was that when they considered all the local factors, going underground with their system was not only better for life cycle and maintenance costs, but was also cost competitive.

Traditionalists will scoff at abandoning a practice they’ve been following for decades. But fiber is a far cry from old-style copper wire. It is much more sensitive and must function at a tremendously more complex level. Further, when the practice of attaching electric lines to polls began, most of the modern underground electric equipment and methods weren’t developed yet.

The bottom line is that the technology and methods of underground installation have evolved to the point that electric (especially distribution) and fiber owners must be open-minded and thorough in examining whether to go underground or risk hanging lines overhead. The old justifications for hanging lines have largely disappeared. It is time to embrace the new construction dynamic.

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