SUE in Texas

SUE Keeps Broadband Connectivity Safe

Hidden beneath the surface lies a labyrinth of utilities vital for our daily lives: water pipes, gas lines, electrical conduits, and telecommunication cables. As our nation embarks on a transformative journey toward enhanced connectivity and sustainable growth, safeguarding these subsurface assets is paramount.

As we depend increasingly on technological connectivity, access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Recent government legislation has prioritized the deployment of high-speed broadband internet to every American. To expedite the process, subsurface utility engineering (SUE) has been critical in ensuring the integrity of underground infrastructure as well as the safety of people in these communities and on project sites.

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In 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, allocating $65 billion to provide every American with access to high-speed broadband internet. The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program is not just about infrastructure but community development. It provides grant funding to all 50 states, Washington D.C., and the five territories for broadband planning, deployment, mapping, and other activities, aiming to deliver broadband networks to unserved and underserved communities. Additionally, private fiber companies are working quickly to lay cables and provide service. As the number of these projects increases to meet funding deadlines, SUE provides a roadmap to avoid expensive and dangerous mistakes while utilities and private companies work to get everyone high-speed internet.

Telecommunication infrastructure typically consists of a complex network of cables, pipes, and conduits buried beneath the ground. SUE mitigates the risks associated with accidental damage to existing telecommunications cables, as well as water and sewer lines, gas pipelines, and electrical conduits. By accurately locating these assets, SUE helps prevent costly delays, injuries, and service disruptions from accidental strikes during excavation.

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The demand from fiber companies for accurate utility location data is overloading 811 locate systems, and in more rural areas, pre-existing data is only sometimes available or accurate. Contract utility locators are filling this void and providing accurate data to keep fiber projects – and all construction projects – moving along.

Approved by Heather during safety check on August 23rd

In 2022 in Harnett County, North Carolina, a fiber company worked to run its line to the town of Erwin, an old mill town with poorly mapped utilities. The lack of accurate utility data was likely a primary cause of frequent damage to water lines and other utilities putting a strain on the county. The county hired McKim & Creed to collect accurate data using top-of-the-line equipment and collection methods to keep projects moving. During our time working with the county, we helped their locators implement new processes to maximize their productivity in the future. According to a Harnett County representative, the county’s “damages were greatly reduced,” and county utilities were saved “from a lot of would-be damages.”

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The technology behind SUE is not just advanced, it’s precise, with the goal being to deliver the most accurate data as quickly as possible, in some cases, in real-time. Each technique plays a specific role in the process, allowing engineers and contractors to create comprehensive subsurface maps that depict underground utilities’ location, depth, and condition with unparalleled precision. SUE encompasses a variety of sophisticated tools and methods, including electromagnetic conduction and induction, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), vacuum excavation, GPS for location data, and geographic information systems (GIS).  More and more locators are using GPR which provides visibility for all piping material, while the standard radio frequency (RF) locators only detect metal.

In addition to its primary function of utility location and mapping, SUE serves as a catalyst for innovation and optimization across various sectors of infrastructure development. From transportation and telecommunications to energy and water management, the insights gleaned from the SUE process inform the design, planning, and execution of critical infrastructure projects, ensuring long-term resilience and sustainability.

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SUE stands at the forefront of modern infrastructure development, serving as a linchpin for damage prevention, increased safety, risk mitigation, and sustainable growth. By harnessing the power of advanced technologies and proactive risk management strategies, we can safeguard our subsurface assets, minimize project delays, and pave the way for a future defined by resilience, efficiency, and connectivity.

Bill Wudte is McKim & Creed’s national SUE director and oversees SUE operations for more than 100 employees in five states. 

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