Excavation for gas main replacement

Cambridge Needs Strong Dig Once/Touch Once Policies

Contractors for Eversource are tearing up my street, replacing the gas main and connections to each house. The disruption — despite the most polite and accommodating contractors I’ve ever encountered- is annoying. The real problem, though, is that the gas main is the only utility being installed.

Dig Once

Wiring a city for fiber optic broadband to the home is expensive. For Cambridge, estimates range from $120 million to $170 million. It’s not the cost of cable itself that drives that figure. Rather, it’s the labor involved — digging up streets and yards, putting down conduit, filling in the holes and restoring the street. There’s a strategy available to minimize those costs: When you’re doing similar work, get ready for fiber optic cables by putting in empty conduit through which fiber optic cables can be installed at a later date.

This is not some wild futurism. It is, instead, part of the National Broadband Strategy, a part the Washington Post called a “no-brainer”. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that a dig once policy can say up to 90% of the cost of broadband.

Touch Once Make Ready

Fiber optic cable being installed on Pearl Street

Approximately 70% of Cambridge’s utility infrastructure is above ground, using the utility poles all around us. And some of them are a mess. In running cables above ground, the most labor intensive work is the “make ready” work. Crews from each utility, in sequence, move their own cables, creating space for any new cables. Touch Once Make Ready policies would, instead, have one crew do all the work. This is both more efficient and much less costly. Touch Once policies have proven controversial, as incumbent utilities don’t necessarily want to make it easier for other utilities who might be competitors. But, as the community benefits are clear — one disruptive event versus one for each utility- adopting one in Cambridge should, also, be a no brainer.

The Governance of Infrastructure

Cambridge has a Pole and Conduit Commission. Though it doesn’t have the profile of the Planning Board or the Board of Zoning Appeals, its importance is underlined by the fact that there are stenographic transcripts of its meetings. And it’s a busy commission, with the record of the June 2016 showing 22 petitions from companies such as Comcast, NSTAR, Lightower, and Mobilitie. The Pole and Conduit Commission role, established by City ordinance, regulates both the attachment of wires to poles and excavation for utilities. Fortunately for Cambridge, the ordinance also includes the following provision:

To all poles erected and maintained by any person under the provisions of this chapter, the City may at any time attach wires for its own use.

Should Cambridge pursue municipal broadband, access to utility poles, something which has been an obstacle in other cities, should not be an issue here. But the cost for that access can be reduced by prompt, forward thinking policy changes.


The author is a member of, but not speaking for, the Cambridge Broadband Task Force.