5 best practices to prevent third-party damages to telecom and cable facilities

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Damages to underground facilities can have big consequences for telecom and cable owners and operators. There are direct costs for facility repair, as well as indirect costs—like business downtime, customer loss, and negative brand reputation—which can be 15 to 30 times that of direct costs.

Networks are becoming larger and more complex, so it’s critical for telecom and cable companies to get a handle on third-party excavation damages. In this whitepaper, we share five best practices to prevent excavation damages and their consequences. Read the content below, or fill out the form for your PDF copy.

5 Best Practices to Prevent Third-Party Damages to Telecom and Cable Facilities

Telecom and cable companies are rapidly expanding their networks to increase coverage and provide fast, reliable service to their customers. But, the spread of underground telecommunication and cable lines isn't without hiccups.

According to the Common Ground Alliance’s 2019 DIRT Report, damages to telecommunications and cable facilities account for 56 percent of all underground damages. Furthermore, damages to these types of facilities increased by 32 percent from 2018.

Facility damages can have big consequences for telecom and cable companies. Of course, there are direct costs for facility repair, but the real consequences are indirect, says Jemmie Wang, Task Force Lead at the Common Ground Alliance (CGA). “The indirect costs of damages—customer experience, brand reputation, and business downtime—are about 15 to 30 times that of direct costs. So, for every dollar spent in repairing the damage there's $15 to $30 of additional costs.”

As networks become larger and more complex, it’s critical for telecom and cable companies to get a handle on third-party excavations that damage their underground facilities. In this whitepaper, we share five best practices telecom and cable facility owners and operators can follow to prevent excavation damages and their consequences.

1. Provide consistent, current mapping data to one call centers

Preventing damage to telecom and cable facilities is not possible without consistent, current mapping data. One call centers use facility records to notify telecom and cable companies when excavators submit their project plans, and locators use them to mark facilities prior to excavation work. Inaccurate or outdated mapping data can lead to accidental damages like fiber cuts.

Per the Common Ground Alliance Best Practice 6.16 Information Capture, facility owners and operators must collect and provide consistent mapping data for:

  • New construction, entered at the time of installation
  • The location of abandoned or sold facilities
  • Engineering stationing and milepost/marker post location—with latitude and longitude—using common mapping coordinate systems that allow conversion to latitude and longitude
  • Alignment of the utility with engineering stationing at each running line change or point of inflection including signs and markers
  • Bridges, culverts, and rivers
  • All road crossings, overhead viaducts, underpasses—including name of the street—and mile-marker/marker-post designation
  • Small-scale maps showing the overall utility route
  • Physical characteristics and attributes of the system, such as pedestal, pole, transformer, meter number, anode bed, size, material, product, and pressure
  • The number of utility lines or conduits in a corridor or the size of the duct package bank
  • Digital imagery used to identify facility locations in relation to the surrounding environment

As you make updates to your facility maps, communicate all additions and changes to the one call center. “It is extremely important [to update] the 811 call centers,” says Kent Kildow, Director of Business Continuity and Emergency Management at Verizon. “We send a monthly or even weekly update to make sure they've got the latest information on our assets so that we can protect them.”

2. Communicate openly and frequently with damage prevention partners

It’s in the best interest of facility owners and operators, project owners, one call centers, locators, and excavators to prevent damages to telecom and cable facilities. But, successful telecom and cable damage prevention requires more than a shared goal; it also requires strong partnerships with frequent communication between all parties.

“You need to view the utility, the excavator, the locator, the 801 one call center all as partners,” says Matthew Roesner, Director of Network Services for AT&T Field Operations at AT&T.

“Make sure you have good lines of communication with the 811 centers in your states and that you’re working with them collaboratively,” echoes Kildow.

The most obvious and essential form of communication between damage prevention partners is positive response. Telecom and cable companies should provide a positive response to all facility locate requests in the time and format required by state or provincial law. A positive response tells excavators that no conflict situation exists or that facility owners or operators have marked the requested area.

One call centers in several states—Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia—as well as Washington D.C. offer electronic positive response systems, which allow facility owners or operators to post their positive response digitally. Other forms of positive response are callback, fax, or automated response system.

3. Use predictive technology to identify high-risk excavations

Some third-party excavations pose higher risks or consequences than others. An excavation accident near a fiber hub or VIP line, for example, could cut service to thousands of customers. Anthony Jelniker, Manager of Business Partner Operations, West Division, at Comcast Cable, recalls an incident that “took down half of Denver” one Super Bowl Sunday.

“We have a large head end right next to the stadium where the Broncos play,” Jelniker says. A small fire ignited and quickly grew, taking out “a ton of fibers.” He says, “It was a major problem for us…[affecting] hundreds of thousands of people.”

Manually reviewing all 811 or one call tickets to pinpoint the riskiest third-party excavations is time-consuming, inefficient, and often ineffective, which is why Wang recommends telecom and cable facility owners and operators explore predictive technologies.

“Sometimes more locators, supervisors, or field examiners are needed, but don’t just throw more bodies at [damage prevention],” he says. “Look at predictive risk, AI systems from a company like Urbint.”

The predictive damage prevention technology Urbint Lens for Damage Prevention Wang references reviews all of a telecom or cable facility owner or operator’s 811 or One Call tickets and signals which facilities are the most at risk from third-party damages. With this information, facility owners or operators can schedule meetings with locators prior to marking or work with excavators to be present at the job site during excavation to protect facilities.

4. Educate the public about 811 to reduce no-call damages

According to the Common Ground Alliance, no-call excavations have made up at least one-quarter of the total reported damages in the U.S. and Canada every year since 2009, except one. In 2019, failure to call 811 was the largest individual root cause of damage, accounting for 29 percent of total reported damages, according to the CGA’s 2019 DIRT Report.

Reasons excavators do not contact 811 about their projects vary. In many cases, excavators simply don’t know the law: A 2020 CGA research report showed half of people said they were aware of the 811 call before you dig number. In other cases, excavators don’t think small projects require a call, or they think contacting 811 will delay their project.

To raise awareness of 811, promote compliance, and protect underground assets, telecom and cable facility owners and operators can create public education programs. Section 8 of the CGA’s best practices guide focuses on public education and awareness and offers tips facility owners and operators can follow to improve safe digging in the long term.

For a hyper-targeted education approach, telecom and cable facility owners and operators can use Urbint Lens for Damage Prevention to identify where excavations are not reported. The software analyzes micro-areas within a service territory for the excavating companies least likely to contact 811 and the areas with the highest volume of construction activity.

5. Push for changes to the damage prevention system

The U.S. damage prevention system was the first of its kind in the world, but it has changed little over the last 35 years. The ticketing process lacks standardization from state-to-state, causing headaches for all damage prevention stakeholders.

“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot having our system set up the way that we do,” says Isaac Weathers, a damage prevention consultant and former Director of Technology at Georgia 811. “We need a standardized process for how tickets are handled, how damages are handled. Only then can we truly get an understanding of a good damage prevention program.”

Wang agrees saying, “Some stakeholders are not adhering to best practices because the structure of damage prevention in the U.S. is largely the same as it was 35 years ago. If we were creating the damage prevention system from scratch, what might it look like? What aspects of that can we actually implement?”

“Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo,” adds Roesner. “There are good damage prevention practices in Australia, China, Canada that can be adopted. Let’s be at the forefront of the industry rather than relying on history and the past.”

Using these best practices, telecom and cable facility owners and operators can prevent excavation damages that interrupt the fast, reliable service TV, phone, and internet customers have come to expect. For more damage prevention help, or to request a demonstration of Urbint Lens for Damage Prevention, visit urbint.com.