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3 key steps to successful utility design for the telecommunications industry

March 15, 2023

By Russell Langstaff

Utility design helps telecommunications networks connect our world. Here’s how to work with AHJs, provide constructable designs, and assist clients.

How are you reading this blog? On your phone? Laptop? Are you in the office? Maybe at the coffee shop?

Regardless, you’re using a telecommunications network. We all are. Every day.

They are essential to life today. Our work, home, recreation, and more are all connected in a way they haven’t been in the past. If we learned nothing else from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that reliable telecommunications networks are fundamental to our way of life. 

When looking at the utilities that support telecommunications, a thoughtful approach to design is critical. Whether it’s short connections within a city or thousand-mile, fiber-optic cables, these utilities connect our communities. It’s essential that we design them correctly. 

Engineering a route for fiber optic cable in light of the surrounding infrastructure is key to preparing our design and getting ahead of potential risk.

I’ve found there are three fundamental elements in every project:

  • Take time to prepare
  • Make sure the design is constructable
  • Appreciate the value of a great set of plans   

Each of these is critical to a project’s success. You know that “spinning wheel of death” that shows up on your devices from time to time? Smart telecommunications design helps us avoid that frustrating experience.

1. Make time for preparation to speed things up

It may seem like an oxymoron, but slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. What do I mean? Preparation is essential. And it starts before the design process. This requires two key ingredients. First, know what you’ll be submitting at the end of design and to whom you are submitting it. Second, know what your timetable is for this process.

The first task is doing your research. Nothing is more of a showstopper than missing a key submittal to a federal, state, or local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). All it takes to completely alter a schedule is having your plan set subjected to standards or a review process you weren’t anticipating. This could result in delayed approval and start to construction. Or, worse, going back to the drawing board and starting over. Take the time to determine who the AHJs are in your project area and learn their guidelines and standards.

Reviewing parcel documentation or utility plans from the area can be integral in identifying possible AHJs. Here are key questions I’ve come across; the answers help identify the right AHJs.

  • Is that a generic irrigation easement, or is it an easement that your local irrigation agency is a steward of federal underlying rights?
  • The transmission line easement gives permission for overhead power to traverse there. Do they now have additional review authority?
  • Does the AHJ you’re working with know if there are any additional AHJs?
  • Are there any capital improvement projects in the works? 

Designed with a fiber backbone infrastructure, the Eeyou Communications Network in northern Quebec was built to survive heavy weather conditions and difficult terrain, such as crossing rivers, streams, and swamps.

The AHJs are equally interested in ensuring the plan sets they’re reviewing and eventually approving have all the bases covered. Building lasting relationships with the AHJs you submit to can go a long way in the success of your current project and others you may undertake in the future.

The second key step to being prepared is setting realistic milestones, both internally and externally. Start with a clear understanding of the project expectations. What are the goals? Is it possible to achieve them by the desired milestone? Then consider the level of detail required by your AHJs. Do their review times work within your client’s expectations? If the AHJ timelines do not work within the client’s expectations, this provides an opportunity provide solutions to the client:

  • Alternative timelines that still allow for project completion.
  • Alternative project details that allow the project to maintain the client’s desired timeline.
  • Stop the project entirely. This could result in saved time, money, and effort for both parties.

Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Taking time up front to prepare the project makes it run smoothly, which helps it move as quickly as possible.

2. Constructable telecommunications design is essential

Although they are working toward the same goal, fiber engineering and construction are two vastly different disciplines, and their approaches can be at odds with one another. One discipline lives and works in 2D while the other thinks and executes in 3D. We must find the space between to provide a permittable yet constructable design.

Designers develop plans in a climate-controlled environment away from the hustle and bustle of the field. For hours at a time, they stare at a growing plan set from one perspective: top down. Additionally, they’re guided or restricted by rules that are black and white. If you are here, do this. If this is present, do that. Once they submit a plan to an AHJ, the person inspecting their work also sits at a desk reviewing the plan—top down—and judging it by black and white principles. 

Nothing is more of a showstopper than missing a key submittal to a federal, state, or local authority having jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, this scenario results in an approved set of plans that might not translate into the most constructable design it could have been. What’s a remedy? One possible solution is getting the engineer and contractor together in the field to do a site/job walk before the design process begins. They should ask each other questions that can help bring a constructable design to life. What are the client’s needs? Are there secondary goals to consider? What does the landscape offer or what is it inhibiting? Will there be future growth in the area?

I’ve personally seen the value of being onsite with the construction manager (CM). A freeway widening led to a major utility relocation project. I needed to provide relocation plans for a joint trench for several providers. We had a desired running line that was tentatively approved by the project’s lead agency. It fit within their digital design. The running line had to go extremely deep to avoid existing utilities and proposed facilities as a part of the freeway expansion.

Due to the complicated nature of the project, I went out with the CM to review the existing conditions. We found that the lead agency’s digital files did not match real world conditions. During the site walk, we were able to provide feedback that the proposed facilities could shift laterally, allowing for our proposed relocation to be completed at a much shallower depth. This change saved the customer thousands of dollars in construction costs and provided a shorter construction timeline.

Construction firms and their foremen must keep mobilization schedules and costs in mind. They want to get in, do the job, and not have to return. Knowing your clients’ needs and helping them look to the future is one way to provide a constructable design that mitigates having to return. Do they plan to expand? Consider upsizing equipment to allow for this. Does the AHJ have a tough review process to get through? Suggest more conduits or additional equipment so future plan reviews may not be needed. Is there a chance the roadway will be expanded? Plan your running line to be deeper than normal and farther back in the right-of-way to avoid future conflicts. Finally, take notice of existing utilities and equipment in the area. Sometimes, today’s perceived perfect running line was also the perfect running line for someone before you.

Documenting everything from the field—made easy by using mobile GIS apps to record and transmit data safely, efficiently, and in real time—not only provides a more inclusive plan set but it also shows the contractor you’re thinking about their environment. Now you’re thinking 3D.

Our Stantec team worked with TELUS to expand their fiber network and bring frontline broadband technology into Western Canada, helping to deliver the most reliable internet service to millions of people.

3. Presentation is important

You’re prepared. You have the contractor’s buy-in. Now what? A clean, presentable, and professional product goes a long way in achieving excellent telecommunications design. A well-done plan set yields many benefits. The first is that it indirectly helps maintain review times.

You can have a technically proficient plan set to review, but what happens if it’s messy? Now the reviewer might not trust the information in front of them, possibly thinking this way: “If you can’t be bothered to provide a clean drawing, could you be missing something? That could subject your plan set to unnecessary scrutiny and may even result in corrections being required that have no bearing on purpose or design. A clean and presentable drawing may not shorten a review time, but it most certainly won’t lengthen it.

A second benefit to clean and presentable drawings is increased clarity from the bidding construction contractors, which results in more precise bids. Construction costs are in large part based on the bidding firm’s understanding of the project requirements. Plan sets that are too busy or difficult to read may cause the bidding firm to be unclear on all the project details. That clarity could result in a higher bid to cover any unexpected changes that come up after construction has commenced.

The last benefit to having clean and presentable work is a long and extended life cycle of the design plans. Telecommunication drawings are often used as system records for years to follow. Clients will likely need to take the drawings into the field because of future expansions or conflicts with future projects. Having something neat and readable allows for ease of use. These designs—and the completed projects—will have a long life and help deliver the next telecommunication project.

Helping deliver the next telecommunication project

In today’s data-driven age, telecommunications networks continue to grow. That’s not going to change.

As designers and engineers, we must provide the best solutions possible. Finding ways to reduce controllable risks and proactively manage the process is crucial to delivering the project and meeting client goals. Preparation, constructability, and presentation are factors that benefit the project and clients for years.

  • Russell Langstaff

    Known for his great communication skills, Russell is project manager based in Phoenix, Arizona working with our Community Development team.

    Contact Russell
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