When it comes to electric cooperative technology, the utility pole is as old school as it gets. Still mostly wood, still standing tall alongside roads and highways across America, the humble power pole looks much as it did when co-ops first began stringing line in the 1930s.

But that old technology is enabling some of the newest tech out there: for example, 5G, the latest generation of wireless service, which promises speeds 10 times faster than current 4G cellular. Some electric co-ops and other power utilities are working with telecommunications companies to place 5G antennas on poles as the telecoms build out their new networks.

Fort Loudoun Electric Cooperative, based in Vonore, Tennessee, is negotiating a joint-use contract with a wireless provider to install both 5G and the latest 4G hardware on co-op poles.

“There’s about half a dozen locations they’ve identified, and they’ve indicated there will be more,” says Chad Kirkpatrick, the co-op’s vice president of operations and engineering.

Fort Loudoun Electric’s service territory extends across three counties in the southeastern part of the state and includes both rural areas and more densely populated parts of the greater Knoxville metropolitan area. The co-op has 32,000 members on more than 2,700 miles of line.

Making sure those members—and all co-op members—aren’t left on the wrong side of a digital divide as 5G spreads across the United States is important, says Kirkpatrick, who chairs the overhead lines subcommittee of the NRECA’s Transmission and Distribution Engineering Committee (TDEC).

“This is the technology of today, not just nationwide but worldwide,” Kirkpatrick says. “We need to be proactive and not reactive—proactive to ensure that members of the co-ops we all represent have the same resources as people who live in the major metropolitan areas.”

At the same time, he says, 5G and other technology being added to poles is posing new challenges for co-ops that they need to be aware of, including planning and safety issues.

Traditionally, the “communications space” on a utility pole has been the section lower to the ground, where the telephone and cable TV wires and associated equipment like junction boxes are placed below the power space. But 5G antenna structures often need to be placed on the top of the pole to get the range they need to operate effectively.

Also, the density of antennas needed to cover an area is greater because providers are moving away from the larger cell towers of previous generations, which could reach much farther than 5G and a new generation of lower-power 4G that’s being installed by some telecoms.

“They call it small cell,” explains Brian O’Hara, NRECA senior director of regulatory affairs for telecommunications and broadband. “The idea is you put this smaller cell site lower, closer to people, and make it less power. You’ll have fewer people on it, so they’ll each have more bandwidth.”

But that means a greater number and density of antennas is required than in the past. The industry estimates there could be up to 300,000 small cell installations nationwide in just the next few years. Many of those will end up on utility poles, each box holding dozens of small antennas.

The installations are powered, so a live connection has to be on the pole, along with what’s usually a fiber-optic cable running through the power space. Small cell placed higher on the pole requires a different level of training for communications hardware maintenance, O’Hara says.

“It should be electrical-certified lineworkers working in that space,” he says.

Kirkpatrick adds that line crews will also have to contend with the power of the 5G radio spectrum.

“The first thing is just the learning curve. You’re dealing with radio frequencies that can be damaging to the human body,” he says. “We just need to make sure we have the right training for our personnel. We’ve got the most well-trained workforce in the history of co-ops at this point, but now you’re introducing something that they’ve never done before.”

‘Properly and safely’

Small cell installations may be the latest wave of gear going up on poles, but they’re part of a long-term trend to put more hardware in general on poles, says Robert Harris, NRECA’s principal engineer for transmission and distribution. This includes not only system hardware, such as wireless amp meters, but also traffic and security cameras.

Harris believes the demand will only increase, tied to the public’s growing reliance on the internet.

“Certainly the country has recognized the importance of broadband during this pandemic,” Harris says. “I think it’s something that we’re going to see more of throughout the country. I’m just concerned that there’s going to be such a push for it that it’s going to be a challenge for our member co-ops to ensure that things are done properly and safely.”

To help electric co-ops navigate the changing environment, the TDEC and its overhead lines subcommittee have made suggestions for a bulletin that goes over requirements and procedures for joint use. The Rural Utilities Service has to review and approve the bulletin, which is expected to be released in 2021. It’s intended to be a comprehensive document that brings together a variety of information into a single source.

“The bulletin will be a tool that can be used by co-ops and by the joint-use providers themselves to understand the National Electrical Safety Code rules and regulations, and other rules and regulations, that are already out there, as guidance to provide for a safe working atmosphere, not just for cellular antennas, but all joint-use applications,” Kirkpatrick says.

Growing demands

Smart-grid hardware could be coming to power poles in the future, as well. Vendors and utilities have experimented with sensors that monitor the condition of a pole, relaying the information to the utility through the internet. If a pole goes down, the sensor can send an alert that includes the exact location, size of the pole, number of crossarms, hardware, and other details, telling a line crew exactly what they’re facing as they head out.

In urban areas, the cellular revolution is already leading to experiments with a different kind of pole.

“What’s really interesting is—and the cities are doing this more than utilities—what’s happening with urban-area streets lights; they’re coming up with this new-generation pole that’s kind of like a decorative pole but hollow,” O’Hara says. “They have stuff inside like the antennas, wiring, and potentially associated electronics. I think, on a limited scale, it could eventually work its way into the distribution grid. In small towns, decorative poles downtown, these kinds of poles could be very attractive.”

The 5G antenna boxes being placed on the top of today’s poles, along with the fiber-optic cables, increase the weight and wind load on the pole, NRECA’s Harris says, which are among the factors electric cooperatives have to take into account when negotiating with telecoms for joint use. In some cases, he says, poles will have to be swapped out to accommodate the new hardware.

Utility poles have long been available in steel and concrete and fiberglass composites, but the vast majority of utility poles for cooperatives and other power providers are still made of wood. Those poles have already been changing in response to the growing demands placed on them, says Will Cox, director of Wood Quality Control Inc. (WQC), the NRECA subsidiary that provides an inspection and quality control program for poles and crossarms.

Cooperatives buy between 600,000 and 900,000 treated wood poles annually; maintenance and new construction projects, as well as the weather, affect the overall number, Cox says. Poles are classed based on their ability to handle a horizontal load; the lower the class number, the heavier the load rating.

“Where in the past, cooperatives were predominantly going with class 4 and 5 poles in a 35- or 40-foot height, now you’re probably looking at more class 2s and 3s, trending to 45 and 50 feet,” Cox says.

In many instances, the move to higher-rated poles has been driven by a desire to harden systems against storms and other hazards. James Carter, who has spent over three decades working with WQC, says the trend toward taller poles reflects a need for higher clearances and an increased demand for space on poles to accommodate new technologies.

As both the power grid and communications are transformed, Carter notes that the ability of many new technologies to function properly will depend largely on one of the industry’s oldest pieces of hardware.

“All that new technology won’t function properly if its basic support system, the treated wood pole, doesn’t keep it in the air,” he says. “As uncomplicated and basic as they may seem, treated wood poles are the key component.”

Download an infographic on 5G and Power Poles