Alachua County monitors fiber installations, bans two subcontractors 

Alachua County inspector Aaron Burke (left) monitors a fiber installation.
Alachua County inspector Aaron Burke (left) monitors a fiber installation.
Courtesy Alachua County

Alachua County Public Works has seen an explosion in permit requests for fiber optic installations over the past year, meaning expanded internet options for residents. 

The county has no control over who gets to install fiber in its right-of-way, and Aaron Burke, interim construction inspector superintendent, said permitting around 300 miles of fiber installation has been a big lift. 

Besides permitting the work, Alachua County also sets parameters to ensure the safety of public and private assets. Burke and his team of three other inspectors ensure compliance with the county’s rules.  

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In the past six months, Alachua County has banned two fiber subcontractors from working in its area because of violations. Another subcontractor has been pulled by the company it worked for, Burke said. 

Last week, Alachua County notified Sigma Underground, a subcontractor for Pavlov Media, that it could no longer install fiber after a series of incidents.  

“They were given repeated opportunities to take corrective actions and come back within our specifications and our codes, and they just would not do it. So, they were dismissed,” Burke said.    

Burke said more fiber options should mean more competitive pricing. He said the companies coming in with fiber, Pavlov Media and IQ Fiber, are offering good plans, and other companies like COX and AT&T might need to upgrade its network to compete. 

A flooded road in the Hidden Oaks neighborhood after a water line was hit in November.
Courtesy Gainesville Regional Utilities A flooded road in the Hidden Oaks neighborhood after a water line was hit in November.

To install fiber, companies must locate all the existing utilities in a neighborhood—water lines, wastewater lines, gas pipes, other fiber cables and electrical lines. Then, the companies must weave its own fiber cables through neighborhoods, along and underneath roads.  

All the work that Burke permits and inspects happens within the Alachua County right-of-way—an area beside roads for public use. The issue can confuse homeowners who assume that their private yard stretches from their doorstep to the curb. But rights-of-way can extend from a couple of feet to 20 feet or more into the areas beside roads.  

If companies want to enter private property or easements, then an agreement must be struck with the owners.  

Burke said fiber optic installation has risen to about 60% of the permits issued.  

Pavlov Media and IQ Fiber both launched full-scale installations last year, and Burke said the permits will taper off as both companies finish their networks located in west Gainesville and the surrounding unincorporated area.  

The county permits the work subdivision by subdivision. Burke said this gives the county a more detailed view of the work and tracks where the companies and subcontractors they hire are working.  

Burke and his team can then show up and ensure compliance.  

Fiber installation hit a water line in southwest Gainesville in November, causing the road to flood.
Courtesy Gainesville Regional Utilities Fiber installation hit a water line in southwest Gainesville in November, causing the road to flood.

In the case of the two subcontractors dismissed, Sigma Underground and Cam-tech, Burke said the county found a number of issues that weren’t addressed. 

He said Cam-tech sometimes failed to check what utilities were located in the area. They also used a method of drilling that Alachua County banned, called a missile mole. The county requires directional drilling that reduces impacts to other utilities.  

While cheaper and quicker, missile mole drilling has less control, and the drill ends straying into places it shouldn’t — like hitting water lines.  

Burke said Sigma Underground also didn’t haul away excess dirt left. Instead, the county has footage of workers taking shovels of dirt and spreading it out under bushes and flower beds of private property.  

“I’ve got spreadsheets on this where I put the date, the location and what the violation was,” Burke said.  

Those violations get sent to the subcontractor and communications company along with Alachua County officials.  

When a gas or water line is hit, the utility company comes out and fixes it. Burke said the subcontractor then must deal with the utility company to handle the cost. Within a four-day period, Burke said Cam-tech hit a 6-inch, 8-inch and 12-inch water line.  

Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) has seen an increase in utility damage from fiber installations since the permit application explosion. 

During fiscal year 2023, which ended Sept. 30, 2023, GRU reported 119 damage incidents due to excavation. During the first seven months of fiscal year 2024, GRU reported 195 damage incidents from excavations.  

“Each utility system has different requirements when making repairs and restoring utility service,” GRU said in a response. “Natural gas services may cost hundreds of dollars for repairs whereas water and wastewater repairs can cost thousands because equipment, materials and labor requirements are greater.” 

Utility employees work to repair damage after a ruptured water line in November.
Courtesy Gainesville Regional Utilities Utility employees work to repair damage after a ruptured water line in November.

In November 2023, a fiber optic subcontractor hit an 8-inch water line at the Tower Oaks neighborhood off SW 24th Avenue. The water flooded and washed out the road. 

In some areas, existing utilities leave little room for error.  

The city of Hawthorne has lost water service three times in 2024 because of communication installations that have hit lines.  

City Manager John Martin said these problems crop up when working through densely populated areas, and that the city works quickly to resolve issues as they arise.  

Burke said he gets emails and calls every day from citizens asking why work is being done in their yard or what all the red flags are doing. The county released information twice to let citizens know about the installations.  

Burke said the county has tried to set standards to help residents. One of those is only allowing residential work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with no drilling after 4 p.m. He said the goal is to mitigate the chances that someone arrives home to find their water or gas isn’t working.  

“Everybody seems to be switching to fiber optic. It’s lightspeed compared to see what’s out there now,” Burke said.  

But as the companies switch, his team makes sure the installation is done according to code with any damage reported. The county inspectors also monitor new driveways and subdivisions and any other work within Alachua County’s right-of-way. 

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Denise

I do not want another ground plate cover in the corner of my front yard! Stop this invasive fiber invasion.

Edgar

Buried Telephone and CATV contractors are the worst. Any idiot that can buy a ditchwitch is in business.