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Austin Energy has wire problems

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 by Jack Craver

Austin Energy’s poles are overcrowding.

Providers of telephone, cable and internet services have a right under state law to attach their wires to city-owned utility poles (at a nominal $10 fee), but a dramatic increase in the number of attachments in the past five years has led to concerns about companies making improper attachments that jeopardize public safety, explained Austin Energy staff to the Electric Utility Commission on Monday.

“We frankly have been overwhelmed in recent years with the number of new attachments to our poles,” said Susan Groce, Austin Energy manager of electric service delivery.

The roughly 165,000 electric distribution poles in the Austin Energy service territory are appended with approximately 365,000 attachments from third-party providers, such as AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Google Fiber.

With the record number of wires comes more violations. Telecom companies or (more commonly) the contractors they hire to place their wires sometimes install them in ways that endanger the safety of utility workers and the public. Common problems include wires that are not high enough above roadways, are placed too closely to other wires or are installed in the “supply space” reserved for the utility’s own equipment. Companies also sometimes neglect to trim tree branches to keep them out of the way of their wires, as they are required to do.

A number of commissioners were perplexed by what they saw as the utility’s inability or unwillingness to punish telecom providers for breaking the rules.

“Your regular customer, when they’re late with the bill, you want to fine them,” said Commissioner Derrick Norris. “But these big-dollar companies” are getting away scot-free, he suggested.

Groce agreed that there “needs to be repercussions” but said it is unclear whether the utility has the right to levy fines on companies, based on FCC rules. When pressed on whether the utility is specifically prohibited from fining companies, Groce and Dan Smith, Austin Energy vice president of electric service delivery, did not say that was the case. Instead, they said that the federal agency had not addressed the issue.

“The FCC hasn’t laid out something clear-cut about how much we can charge per violation,” said Smith.

However, said Groce, “There’s a possibility that a company would be prohibited from making new attachments” if it does not address its violations. That, she pointed out, is a pretty obvious incentive for a company to correct its mistakes. The expense of sending workers out to fix the problem should also serve as a deterrent, she said.

Companies that seek to add wires to the utility’s poles are also required to submit an application detailing the current status of the pole, including how much space is available. Groce conceded, however, that the utility is not able to ensure that the information the firms submit is accurate. Norris likened that situation to allowing the “fox to guard the henhouse.”

Commissioner Cary Ferchill said that current regulations on the use of utility poles were written back when there were only a couple of companies setting up wires.

“All of that law has to be rewritten in light of competitive telecommunications,” he said.

The utility does not have estimates on the total number of violations because it has never performed a full audit of its poles. It plans to do so soon, said Groce, but until then it is mostly being notified of violations by citizens or utility employees.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor after the meeting, Smith said that he wanted to make clear that having the utility share its poles with telephone, cable and Internet providers is likely preferable to forcing providers to set up their own poles.

Commission Chair Michael Osborne, who was surprised that the presentation on the subject ate up nearly an hour of the commission’s time, said that he would have to show his colleagues a photo he took of a utility pole in Panama.

“It makes all of our poles look like they’re virtually bald,” he said.

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