Powering Strong Communities

Eliminate safety gray areas around 5G pole attachments

For telecommunications companies, small cell or fifth generation (5G) wireless is the next evolution in their business. Deployment is going to happen, and it is coming fast. The upgrade will ultimately be good for society, but it means that we as utilities need to be interacting with telecommunications companies to make sure deployments don’t have any unintended negative impacts.

Most critically, we want to be sure that both utility and telecom workers alike can work safely with any new infrastructure.

What’s different about the 5G small cell attachments, compared to other types of pole attachments, is where they are placed. Companies often hope to install small cell antennas on the top of poles, where they tend to be more line-of-sight, within a relatively small area. That means utilities are getting more pressure to put antennas on distribution poles that already have power on them.

The Federal Communications Commission order issued in September 2018 gave telecom companies a lot of tools to be able to install these items, but the rule was issued without consulting with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about how installations could impact worker safety. That means we have a rule that allows for these installations, but not a method for making sure the installations are done safely.

Communication and electric lineworkers both will be affected. Communication workers are not trained to work in the power area, and power lineworkers might now have to work around a foreign device that’s tied to other equipment down the pole. This sets up an unknown in a high-voltage workspace where workers really need to know everything that’s going on, what’s expected, and what the codes are to stay safe.

The National Electrical Safety Code does not specifically address attachments in the power zone or above power lines. Instead, there are many interpretations of what the code clearance should be. And when you start to have gray areas, there are always safety concerns.

In an effort to address these gray areas and get some clarity, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers formed joint use working groups to discuss the impact to the NESC. These groups, which include representatives from the power and telecom industries, in addition to OSHA, convened in October 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. The meeting was a culmination of discussions that have been happening for the past year about joint use issues, with a primary focus on the application, installation and operation of small cell attachments.

At the meeting, we presented a white paper, Establishing Consistency in Joint Use Applications with 5G Wireless Facilities. Utilities are invited to submit comments on the paper. The hope is to get as many comments as possible on the issues laid out from a variety of perspectives, so that we can develop common practices and standards through IEEE. Additionally, OSHA is looking toward having such an IEEE guide to help with its rulemaking on the issue.

More immediately, utilities should be making an effort to work with telecom companies at the local level. Utilities are going to have to determine a policy and a plan for how these items can be implemented in their communities and should do what they can to assist telecom providers. It is when a utility resists or doesn’t offer any help that telecom companies will do whatever they can, which can lead to instances that might not be safe for the workers. 

At City Utilities of Springfield, Missouri, we’ve found that if we can assist telecom providers and offer a safe way for them to put the antennas in, then most companies will follow our lead. For example, we offered to set poles — separate from the distribution system — for one large telecom company to do a big build-out in our town. This was a win-win, as having separate poles made it much easier for the telecom company to build and kept high-voltage and telecom facilities from being in the same area, and they paid us to do it.

This separation might not always be possible. With another company, we made an agreement that it could install antennas on our streetlights if it paid to retrofit the poles to be structurally sound enough.

The important takeaway is that we could offer a path for the providers to take. If utilities can give providers a path, they will generally take that path, which will avoid creating potentially dangerous situations.

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