Fiber to the Premises and right-of-way management

Wm. Roger Buell, P.E.
Director of Public Services
Grand Blanc Township, Michigan
Chair, APWA Utilities and Public Right-of-Way (UPROW) Committee

Fiber to the Premises, also known as FTTP, is the latest revolution to hit the right-of-way manager, as yet another utility desires to occupy the right-of-way. Some municipalities saw a glimpse of what was to come in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the deployment of competing cable companies. Some of you may still remember the first deployments of cable TV into your community.

For those who have successfully managed the newest deployment, congratulations on taking the lead; the rest of us could learn from those experiences. This article explores one city's experience with deployment of fiber and how it managed the onslaught of permit applications.

The City of Charlotte, North Carolina, has had experience with the deployment of fiber companies in the built-up urban areas since 1995 and currently hosts over 22 different providers. This relationship with the local underground installers and fiber providers prepared them with the basic framework to managing fiber deployment in the public's right-of-way. Along with an updated ordinance on encroachments into the public's right-of-way for non-standard items, formal agreements, policies and procedures were developed when the first fiber revolution came to town.

Early in 2004 the APWA UPROW Committee became aware of an increased amount of chatter regarding the deployment of broadband technology and some of the success and non-success stories. The right-of-way community had started to develop a state-of-the-practice that the next wave was coming and we had better prepare for it. In light of this, the Charlotte ROW Manager's office started making first contact with the local telephone carrier, BellSouth, prodding them to look into the future of their operations.

Coincidentally, BellSouth had already been making plans for increasing its bandwidth due to the success of its DSL (Digital Subscriber Link) lines for high-speed Internet traffic. As subscribers and traffic increased they prepared for a massive build-out of the Charlotte region. With over 2,000 miles of roads and 280 square miles of community, it was going to be a massive undertaking.

After a few face-to-face meetings it became apparent that existing staff was not going to be able to expand from a skeleton staff of two that facilitates 10 permits a month along with their other heavy workload of day-to-day right-of-way management to over 100 permits per month. Utilizing CDOT's motto of "Fast, Friendly and Flexible" and a philosophy of "trust but verify thoroughly," a process of "permit by rule" was developed. This process would require a compromise of the existing policy and procedures on behalf of both parties. After a modified encroachment agreement was developed and approved, detailed permit flow procedures were worked out with front-line staff.

The process "permit by rule" was borrowed from the state of Michigan's NPDES permit program. It boils down to "Submit your application and if you don't hear from the authority within a certain time frame, your permit's approved." For example, an applicant submits a hundred or so permits on Monday. Each of the permits includes a description of the five "w's" and an "h". That is to say, who are you; what are you doing to the right-of-way; where are you doing it (what streets); why are you doing it (why in the right-of-way and not in private easements); when are you going to do it (what day/time); and how are you going to install it (direct bury/directional bore/aerial installation).

The Monday submittals had to be in electronic format and show up in the right-of-way project coordinator's e-mail. From there, the coordinator would identify the particular sensitive types of installations, or contractors that were not able to provide complaint-free installations. This allowed the large number of permits to be brought down to a manageable level of 10 or so. The remainder were automatically approved within the agreed-upon waiting period of 5 to 10 days.

BellSouth agreed that self-monitoring and project coordination of the automatic permits would be necessary. They were able to tap into the City's recently developed public project (water main, sanitary sewer, storm system, transportation) coordination project listing and the highly-publicized Street Use Notice of parades and special events scheduled in the congested area of the City.

Although the deployment is still underway, initial response from the provider and CDOT are positive. BellSouth is able to keep its inventory of fiber moving out of its yard instead of waiting for weeks for a permit, and the City is able to provide a satisfactory level of accountability in managing the right-of-way.

Periodic checks of the process at both the coordination level and the front-line installation level were built into the process to ensure that expectations expressed by both parties were being achieved. The agreement had a built-in escape clause for both if it wasn't working.

Wm. Roger Buell, P.E., was the ROW Manager for the City of Charlotte and is the Chair of the APWA UPROW Technical Committee. He wishes to thank his Right-of-Way Plan Coordinator, Linda Poissant, and Field Installation Project Coordinator, Shane Helms, for their assistance in making this seemingly impossible task of implementation of broadband deployment appear seamless and transparent. He can be reached at buell@twp.grand-blanc.mi.us.