JD Cox is busier than usual these days.

As director of safety and loss control for Northcentral Electric Cooperative, he’s no longer just concerned about people and power lines. He’s now spending increasing amounts of time and energy on the co-op’s broadband fiber deployment.

“We’ve got anywhere from 10 to 15 different contractors in our service territory working on our fiber network on any given day,” Cox says. “The potential risks to people and property are legitimate safety concerns.”

So before the directional boring rigs can begin churning through soil, Cox and his team comply with Mississippi’s 811 locator laws, which require notifications before any commercial excavations or residential digging deeper than 12 inches. And staking technicians and other co-op staff are deployed to any neighborhoods where fiber is being buried.

“The member may be the second or third owner of the home with no concept of what lies beneath their property,” Cox says. “We do the best we can to work with the homeowner to locate facilities, but we have had incidents that required repairs at our expense.”

“We’ve got lines in the ground energized at 14,400 volts,” he says. “Any underground breach, break, contact with utilities causes undue expense, disruption of services and worse—potential injury or death.”

Severed fiber optic lines not only affect nearby residents but can impact downstream businesses and service.

“Fiber breaks are expensive and tedious repairs,” Cox says. “They not only cut your home Wi-Fi services, but could potentially disrupt business, phone and emergency services like law enforcement and medical services.”

As more and more co-ops begin new broadband projects, these and other safety measures are increasing exponentially nationwide.

“Underground [fiber] work does not present many unique or greater challenges to qualified employees, but those involved must be trained to recognize hazards from nearby energized lines,” says Bud Branham, NRECA’s director of safety.

Branham cites clearance space between varied types of underground assets and awareness of when certain tasks should be left to those with training to work near energized power lines.

“The most notable concern we have seen at Federated with the cooperatives expanding into the fiber industry is the number of electrical contacts our membership has experienced in the build-out of fiber systems,” says Corey Parr, vice president of Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange.

Those incidents, he says, have primarily involved contractors hired for new system buildouts.

“The issue continues to grow within our membership as projects expand and deadlines for completion draw near.”

Educating members

To address these concerns, co-op safety and loss directors and operations personnel across the country are working to increase awareness among members about these underground systems and the importance of determining the location and depth of those assets.

Their work has been complicated by soaring demand for underground locators that is outstripping the current workforce.

The co-op provides electricity to nearly 19,000 members in three Iowa counties and three Minnesota counties and is now developing a fiber network with the potential of providing high-speed internet to 2,800 approved subscribers, with applications to serve another 1,000 connections pending.

“MiEnergy has over 900 miles of underground conductor, but in just three years, our broadband partnership has placed over 175 miles of underground fiber and have $20 million in projects to complete in the next two years,” Krambeer says.

The co-op is working hard to inform members that underground broadband infrastructure is now as essential as buried electrical, water and other service connections.

“You don’t want to be known as the person that caused the power, water or internet to go out in your neighborhood because you didn’t take the time to find out where the utilities were placed beforehand,” says MiEnergy’s Brenda Tesch.

As communications manager of the co-op, she times relevant newsletter and social media messages to coincide with periods when members are more likely to be focused on projects that require digging or trenching.

“We’ve been trying to stress that 811 may not be the only service you need,” says Tesch, adding that the service’s focus is on traditional utilities. “More members are adding sprinkler systems, electric power to outbuildings and other yard features and invisible fences to their yards. Privately owned systems aren’t marked by 811 contractors, so they may want to contact independent locator services to ensure that those systems are not disturbed.”

'Congested underground world'

Similar expansions in broadband nationwide are adding to an already crowded subsurface landscape known to include about 22 million miles of pipes, wires, cables, conduits and other systems buried across the country, according to Common Ground Alliance, which represents various groups with interests in underground assets, including some electric co-ops.

In the 15 years since 811 service became a national clearinghouse for locator calls, disruptions caused by digging or burrowing encroachments have fallen by about 50%. But accidental damage to underground systems still represents about $30 billion annually in lost productivity or service interruptions, CGA numbers show.

“Telecom damage amounts to about half of all damages reported,” says Sarah Magruder Lyle, CGA’s president and CEO. “Depending upon the systems impacted, the taxpayers or the ratepayers or consumers pay in price increases that help to recover the costs.”

The increased amount of fiber going into the ground is occurring as electric co-ops and other utilities are burying more of their assets to reduce risks from weather-related disruptions or serve new developments.

“We’re looking at a very congested underground world,” Lyle says. “If we don’t increase the resilience of those systems, we expect to see a continuation of our current damage trends if not more.”

She emphasizes the potential for damage to broadband assets to disrupt key services to broad areas, disconnecting home offices, interrupting electronic transactions for businesses and taking out public safety, health care and educational facilities.

Despite ongoing public awareness campaigns, more than 385,000 incidents involving damage to underground systems or near misses were reported in 2020, according to CGA’s Damage Information Reporting Tool—or DIRT—Report. The group cites failure to notify one-call centers through 811 as the largest single root cause. Excavator field errors, abandoned subterranean assets and locator errors were also cited.

A recent poll conducted by CGA found that nearly three of every five homeowners in the United States take on outdoor home improvement projects each year. Of that number, 80% plant trees or shrubs, 25% erect fencing and 2% build patios or decks.

While damage to electric lines accounted for just over 1% of the total incident costs in 2020, telecommunications asset damage topped 9%.

Massive state and federal investments in broadband expansion have accelerated system design and deployment, but experts caution that this push should not compromise safety, even if there are time limits on funding.

“Electric co-ops have been committed to safety for many years, and part of that commitment is to ensure speed and cost do not drive our culture,” Parr says. “We have to be clear regarding messages sent to employees and contractors involved in the build-out of fiber networks and ensure speed of completion does not drive the culture.”

Over the last 18 months, Federated has experienced multiple employee contact incidents, including one resulting in a serious injury.

“There have been several public contact claims involving contractors who are installing fiber on member systems along with a serious injury from a broken pole,” Parr says. “These incidents highlight the importance of a strong safety culture to protect employees and contract language to protect the cooperative.”

To help avoid problems with deployments, operations and future maintenance, Federated is encouraging its members to make sure their mapping systems are kept up to date to assist with completing locate request. If contractors are employed as locators, members should spot-check their work to confirm accuracy.

“If they’re hiring contractors for construction or locate assistance, we encourage members to make certain their contract language includes hold-harmless and indemnification language along with adequate liability limits that protect the co-op’s interests,” Parr says.

Distribution co-ops involved in broadband operations are adding discussions and trainings focused on fiber deployment and maintenance to their safety meetings and education. And communications and marketing materials geared toward members are being expanded to address related topics.

“Our construction supervisors and foremen spend a lot of time communicating with homeowners and businesspeople to get a sense of what facilities may be buried on the property and where they may be located, and 811 service does help a lot,” says Northcentral EC’s Cox. “If people call before they dig, they can avoid a lot of problems for themselves and their neighbors and take some of the risks out of completing these projects.”