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Need Access to Public Poles For Security?

Need Access to Public Poles For Security?
Apr 24, 2019

Imagine this: Suppose you want to protect your campus, parking lot or public space with cameras or sensors mounted overhead. The perfect vantage point would be on top of utility poles. They give you elevation and usually provide access to electric power. The dull-as-dishwater problem? How do you gain access to poles that don’t belong to you?

And if you can get access to the pole, does that mean you can draw power from it?

Safe and Smart Cities initiatives have led to remarkable new partnerships between municipal governments, private enterprise and technology innovators, rapidly enhancing public safety and security. As exciting as this is, the evolution of Safe and Smart Cities has its mundane, endemic challenges.

Some major cities, like Las Vegas, Toronto and Kansas City, have governments that have been highly receptive to privately owned, smart security infrastructure, easing the permitting process. Applying for access to city-owned poles may be relatively straightforward in those cities, but not all cities make it straightforward, and not all poles are public property – some are owned by the local utilities, which may not be as forthcoming.

In some cities, so-called “One Touch Make Ready” regulations require all modifications to the infrastructure on public utility poles be done by a single, city-approved contractor, with whom arrangements to mount a camera or sensor would need to be made.

What’s true in Vegas or Toronto may not apply to other municipalities. City governments often try to avoid what they perceive as liability, or privacy issues, arising from the installation of private cameras or sensors in public areas. Or, they might simply not want to provide access to power they pay to generate.

Take Bloomington, Indiana, a college town of about 85,000 an hour south of Indianapolis. Bloomington is a typical small city in the sense that it has a mix of public and private infrastructure. Some of the utility poles belong to the city, but many are the property of the local power company, Duke Energy. Each presents its own complexities for anyone seeking access.

Gaining access to these poles can be a lengthy process involving applications and review by multiple stakeholders. Ownership makes a difference in the application process, says Christina Smith, program manager in Bloomington’s Department of Public Works.

  • There is a process in place for the city-owned poles, she explains, involving applying first to the utilities department, followed by a review by the planning and transportation department, and finally, by public works. That can take anywhere from several weeks to several months. Approval isn’t guaranteed, but there are precedents allowing for the use of “private property into the public right of way,” she says.
  • There are policy issues: How does the city know the private cameras will have appropriate specifications? Who will maintain them? How will the city be indemnified in cases of liability, complaints about privacy, or if the pole is damaged?
  • As for Duke Energy’s poles, the company has its own process. Smith’s impression is that it is more difficult, especially if the applicant wants to draw power. “That’s the company’s infrastructure, and they usually don’t want anyone messing with it,” Smith opines.

A request to draw power is especially tricky. Many public poles in Bloomington offer only low wattage – enough to power decorative lights for holiday displays. The city pays for that power, Smith says, and when a third party wants to use it, that creates a billing issue. “City government isn’t set up for that, and we usually don’t approve those applications,” she says. “The infrastructure really isn’t made for private use.”

An exception, she notes, has been Bloomington’s willingness to consider private applications to place small cellular communications nodes in the public right of way. Applicants who want to position cameras and other sensors alongside those nodes might be able to piggyback on wireless providers’ applications.

Need Power? Bring Your Own

Power-access issues in the outdoors have led to the development of self-powered devices and sensor technologies, which feature portable, self-contained solar and battery powered sources, which can be physically deployed without tapping into fixed power to reliably power applications including cameras in outdoor installations.

By bringing their own power to the pole, self-powered video surveillance, or sensors, bypass the need to apply for access to the pole’s electrical service — if it exists at all or is even adequate to power the devices. Application processes still vary from city to city, but the process is simpler and shorter if no power access is required. In Bloomington, it streamlines the process if the city does not need to develop a custom billing arrangement for power usage by the applicant, and not needing to draw power may be the deciding factor in gaining access to a pole owned by a private utility.

There’s no uniform, obvious place to look for each city’s regulations and standards for pole access; that is part of the inherent difficulty in applying in the first place. San Francisco, for example, has a web page for Streetlight Pole Licensing; in other cities, the regulations are harder to locate. The place to start is at each city’s department of utilities or public works.

Self-powered security systems won’t obviate all of the issues that arise when one seeks access to public poles. But they will make applications easier, and solve public safety issues much quicker, for both government and utility stakeholders to evaluate and approve.

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