In the Race to 5G, Utilities Remain Divided on Pole Attachments

Originally Published by AGL Media Group
Authors: Gary Johnson & Scott Nichols

5G wireless communications offers potential rewards for utilities, a larger role for wireless carriers, an improved quality of life and, in energy and transportation, significant cost savings.

There’s no doubt the lure of 5G digitalization is strong. This next-gen network promises to usher in new levels of connectivity and digitalization, opening the door for wide-scale adoption of the internet of things (IoT) and all the new technologies that promise to offer whole new levels of advanced industry and business practices.

But implementing 5G at scale will require extensive collaboration among carriers and electric utilities, local communities, state and local permitting agencies, regulators and technology integrators.

According to CTIA’s report, “The State of Wireless 2018,” the number of deployed small cells is predicted to increase from 86,000 in 2018 to more than 800,000 by 2026. Carriers’ ability to attach new network facilities to utility poles will be critical to this effort.

“To enable broadband providers to enter new markets and deploy high-speed networks, access to poles must be swift, predictable, safe, and affordable,” stated the FCC in 2018. “Pole access also is essential in the race to deploy fast 5G wireless service, which relies on small cells and wireline backhaul.”

To help promote broadband deployment, the FCC has reformed the regulatory framework that governs pole attachments to speed the process and reduce the cost of 5G attachments. But even with regulators on board, industry data from Black & Veatch’s 2020 Strategic Directions: Smart Utilities Report survey shows that utilities remain divided on how they view attachments on their infrastructure and the opportunities for them with 5G. (Visit

Opportunity … or Something Else?

According to Black & Veatch’s annual survey — which polled more than 625 qualified utility, municipal, commercial and community stakeholders — roughly half (49 percent) of respondents said that they see 5G attachment as an opportunity, encouraged by the lure of improved communication capabilities, upgraded infrastructure and the chance to forge new partnerships with carriers (see Figure 1).

But of those who responded otherwise, the group was split ­between those who view such attachments as a requirement (27 percent) and those who see them as a challenge with limited commercial value (25 percent). These responses raise questions about which communities would truly benefit. For example, Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin states its position on its website: “We have concerns about safely accommodating wireless attachments on our poles and are skeptical that 5G technology actually will be deployed in the small communities most municipal utilities serve.” (Visit

Meanwhile, several communities and environmental groups have documented their opposition to 5G attachments, citing aesthetics and health concerns.

Managing Applications

The work to implement 5G at scale has only begun, and momentum is expected to pick up, particularly between 2020 and 2021, as we anticipate mass standards-based 5G rollouts with delivery of a fully optimized 5G standard by 2022.

If momentum continues along this path, telecom industry organization GSMA estimates that we could reach 100 million 5G connections in the U.S. by early 2023, and more than 190 million 5G connections by 2025. (Visit With numbers like these on the horizon, electric utilities anticipate seeing an influx in the number of 5G and fiber broadband attachment applications, and nearly half (48 percent) of survey respondents said they are actively preparing.

Of those taking specific action, 17 percent have created a group specifically to address 5G and fiber applications; 16 percent have created new processes to help streamline the application process; 12 percent have enlisted “aggressive support” from leadership; and 4 percent have hired additional staff to help manage the volume (see Figure 2). But the remaining 52 percent said they plan to process applications as before, without implementing any additional considerations.

Regional Perspectives

But of those that disagreed in the South, 28 percent said they see it as a challenge with limited commercial value, while 15 percent view it as a requirement. This is unsurprising, given that Southern utilities tend to be highly conservative when it comes to rate-setting.Survey results varied by region. The West and the South responded the most optimistically, with more than half (57 percent) of respondents from both regions viewing 5G attachment primarily as an opportunity (see Figure 3).

A good percentage of the Northeast responded that they see also 5G attachment as an opportunity (47 percent), followed closely by requirement (40 percent), with 13 percent responding that it is a challenge with limited value. The Midwest was relatively moderate in its split, with 39 percent viewing 5G attachment as an opportunity, 31 percent seeing it as a challenge and 29 percent considering it to be nothing more than a requirement.

Communication and Collaboration

Knowing 5G implementation is a divisive issue that relies on the full participation of all stakeholders, how can carriers and utilities work better together? The quick answer: Project success relies on each party understanding the other’s culture.

It is no secret that carriers and utilities have very different cultures, each with its own approaches, methodologies and strategies. For example, carriers tend to move fast, especially when it comes to 5G implementation. Our increasingly digital way of life is already straining 4G networks, and demand for additional capacity isn’t slowing any time soon. As a result, carriers are working to expand their networks as quickly as possible, both to meet customer demand and to get ahead of the competition.

But utilities, on the other hand, are extremely process-driven. Backed by more than a century of processes, utilities must adhere to regulations, and rate-setting remains a critical factor when it comes to making strategic decisions and deploying new technologies.

Several examples of successful partnerships already exist, showing that it is possible for carriers and utilities to navigate a collaborative path. For example, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon have all successfully launched standards-based 5G deployment plans in more than a dozen major U.S. cities, and T-Mobile recently announced that it will roll out its nationwide 5G network in early December 2020.

How can other players see similar success? Survey data shows that utilities remain divided on attachments. Successfully shifting this mindset will come down to two things: communication and collaboration.

Carriers must communicate with, and across, the utility to help them recognize and understand the opportunity presented. This means demystifying how the revenue will work, specifically when it comes to cost savings. For example, carriers willing to cover the expense of replacing utilities’ aging assets with new and upgraded infrastructure will save utilities and municipalities money on replacement and upgrade costs. Typically, utilities do not have to build anything; they merely must be willing to partner with the carriers.

And when it comes to collaboration, carriers need to take a holistic approach, which means getting everybody into the same room — the team promoting 5G, the regulatory and customer management teams and the carrier team that handles 5G attachments. Working across siloes will be critical to build utility buy-in. Even within the utility itself, leadership needs to empower these teams to make decisions related to 5G implementation.


The advent of 5G holds benefit for many different groups. Carriers would see their role grow and expand across the IoT ecosystem. Utilities would reap the rewards of upgraded infrastructure and more seamless communications. Communities that embrace 5G could see improved quality of life bolstered by higher revenue and employment. And industries such as energy and transportation could see significant cost savings.

To get to this future state, carriers and utilities must agree to work together, and communication and collaboration will be critical to this effort. Only then can 5G deliver its promised innovations.

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