While the intent of the nation's 104th Congress when enacting the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was not to saddle utilities with a burdensome challenge, the result certainly manifested itself as such. As stated within the law, A utility shall provide a cable television system or any telecommunications carrier with nondiscriminatory access to any pole, duct, conduit, or right of way owned or controlled by it.

Business will never be the same for power companies, as this law throws open the floodgates for an ocean of requests from cable companies, fiber-optic network providers, "boutique" power companies and non-incumbent local telephone carriers – all clamoring for a perch on the "pole."

A universal issue The Telecommunications Act makes it quite clear that every business that has poles must stand ready to be approached by joint users. Within Section 224 the term "utility" means: any person who is a local exchange carrier or an electric, gas, water, steam, or other public utility, and who owns or controls poles, ducts, conduits, or rights-of-way used, in whole or in part, for any wire communications.

While the law allows a utility to refuse to share its poles, such refusal must be based on solid engineering calculations that take into account all physical considerations and stresses on the poles.

To utilities already dealing with shrinking budgets and labor resources such demands could easily overwhelm even the largest of companies. Yet, one U.S. utility is better able to comply with the mandates of the Telecommunications Act thanks to its reliance on recently available software designed specifically to address the issue of joint use.

The experience of AEP Based in Columbus, Ohio, American Electric Power (AEP) is one of the nation’s leading investor-owned utilities. This global energy company controls distribution facilities that serve approximately 4.8 million customers domestically in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. Like every other major utility, the joint-use issue immediately changed the way AEP did business.

"The new law has required AEP to look at an existing situation in a new way," said Jim Salerno, a senior engineer within the distribution business unit of AEP. "Previously, when a joint user proposed to attach to a pole the technician was hard pressed to determine if the pole strength was adequate and respond back in a timely manner. When you have only one telephone and one cable company requesting to attach to a pole, in most cases, the loadings on the poles were probably going to be OK."

"But with the new law and the opening up of our poles to as many communications companies and energy providers as the markets can support, the integrity of the poles could come into question if all these joint users attached," Salerno said. "As multiple joint users started arriving, we began to realize that the poles were being overloaded structurally -- even if there was sufficient clearance available. We needed a better way to determine if each pole was structurally able to handle the additional loads imposed on it by these extra conductors."

"Additionally, when you have a new joint user request to attach, the user doesn't just want to attach to one pole. They might want to attach to every pole in a community -- perhaps hundreds of poles. An engineer could conceivably do all of the calculations by hand for each pole, but it would take forever."

Of course, the new law has no provision for "forever." Basically, each contract for a joint user has within it a time frame in which the utility must respond back to the requesting party. The decision to carry the additional conductors and wires must be made within that contractual deadline. Failure to do so can involve penalties.

"If you don't meet your joint-use obligations, the other party has legal recourse that they can take,” Salerno said. "But you hope it never gets to that. It's kind of tough working with somebody when they're suing you." A solution from a familiar supplier Realizing a better process had to be found, AEP contacted a vendor with which they had established a previous relationship.

"AEP had already been using LD-Pro®, an automated line design optimization program from LineSoft," Salerno said. "Many of their employees come from utilities, so their products meld in with the way that AEP does things. When I joined this project in late '98 AEP had already entered into a partnership to test and use their new LD-Field™ software."

With a long history of developing line design and related programs for the power utility industry, LineSoftÒ, of Spokane, Washington, created LD-Field as a comprehensive software tool to perform strength and clearance analyses on existing and proposed facilities for joint use attachment.

By employing a WindowsÔ interface with drop-down menus and drag-and-drop functionality, a field technician can use LD-Field to take into account structural factors such as line tension, wind, weight loading, and soil conditions. Clearance analysis includes factors like temperature, ice and wind loading

Field personnel can interface LD-Field with their utility's AM/FM/GIS system. The software accepts visual evaluation information -- occasionally aided with the use of laser measuring devices -- field notes and also digital photos. Examples of variables taken into account include: attachment points for conductors and service drops; conductor size and configurations; spans ahead, back and "to service," along with their respective line angles; and pole ground-line circumference.

In a matter of seconds, the application delivers results in both tabular and graphical formats. A utilization report showing the percent of pole, guy, and anchor capacity used by each attachment, as well as deflection, shear and moment diagrams for each structure under all load cases, can be arrived at even while in the field. By generating a scale profile view of every structure and its attachments, the report differentiates between existing and proposed conditions. Thus, by concisely analyzing and modeling the ramifications of each and every attachment a utility can identify potential overload conditions. This provides the utility with unarguable documentation upon which to base its carry/no carry decisions.

Implementation

"Once we began implementing LD-Field, we trained a group of our field personnel to utilize the program who are dispersed throughout our organization," Salerno said. "For example, we have people at our regional and district offices who are in direct contact with joint users--cable companies, telecos and their counterparts. These field personnel are the ones that end up getting contacted first. If a project comes along within their area of geographic responsibility, they can take care of it using LD-Field."

"Some of these projects involve hundreds of poles," Salerno said. "Depending on the scope of the project, conditions in the field, and available resources, in some cases I could ultimately end up getting that request so as not to bog down those people in the field. Then I would end up using LD-Field to do an analysis."

"In either case, there are a number of different paths for us to get the necessary data. One is that the AEP employee closest to the request goes out and gathers the data and completes the analysis or they forward it to the regional office for analysis. Occasionally we have the joint user who is requesting the attachment gather the data for us. We do a normal auditing of their work to make sure that their data and observations are accurate."

Automated software in practice

Once the data is gathered up-front, LD-Field can save utility staff from making trips out to the field every time a request comes in. Comprehensive electronic maps pinpoint possible trouble spots, even those aside from joint use issues, before driving to the site. For example, design engineers can rely on accurate map-based structures to build new projects or supply additional customers.

"After setting up the database, it becomes simply a matter of accessing it for any given project," Salerno said. "Pull down menus draw from these established databases."

For each pole, the number of conductors and the conductor characteristics are entered in advance. Additional equipment, such as a transformer or capacitor, is also included in the database. If the pole is at a corner, the software takes into account guys and anchors. Sub-categories include primaries, neutrals, secondaries, other voltage levels and wire size.

"The way ours is set up, it goes through a map view," Salerno said. "With data layered into our maps you can click on poles along the route proposed by the attaché requesting joint use. Some of the data, such as pole height and class, can be within those layers. As you build this proposed project you can utilize the pull downs for a list of the conductors, equipment and guying that's applicable resulting in an accurate model of what is in the field. Then the software completes the analysis."

"People who are utilizing this are just pointing and clicking," Salerno said. "The software crunches the numbers for you. To me, it's this ease of use that I like best about LD-Field."

Quantifying joint use

Automated tools such as the LD-Field software generate comprehensive utilization reports that identify the exact percent of pole use for each attaché. Via the precise determination of who uses exactly what portion of total pole strength, a utility can also more equitably determine the cost of any required facility upgrades. Such reports provide a utility with defensible grounds for determining who can utilize their poles, and how much they should pay.

"Before LD-Field, there were a lot of assumptions made," Salerno said. "This program came along and enabled us to make the necessary calculations. It allows us to accurately analyze the strengths of a pole based on the forces being imposed on it in timely fashion. Having done the measuring part in the field -- in a previous life -- I realize that there were shortcomings in that process. Now we can actually determine how a pole is going to react, which is just spectacular from an engineering perspective."

The increase of joint use

Joint use is here to stay. The regulatory, engineering and business challenges of dealing with it in today’s deregulated market bring increased liability, costs, and customer service pressures for utilities everywhere. Decisions must be made quickly so as not to jeopardize short or long-term operating budgets. Automated tools enable utility management to make accurate and quick judgments about their ability to handle requests for joint usage -- both from a physical standpoint and financial.

“It would be difficult to meet our contractual obligations in a timely manner without LD Field," Salerno said. "Its use at AEP is growing almost daily. As AEP continues the rollout of LD-Field more technicians are using the program and are excited about what it accomplishes for them.”

As the power industry wades into the new waters of deregulation and shared facilities, every utility is looking at having additional joint users in the telecommunications arena attach to their poles.

"Reliability for the wires group is becoming more and more important," Salerno said. "Utilities must ensure that the integrity of their facilities is maintained while they allow new users to utilize these assets. This software enables them to do that."