If the last two years have taught the world anything, it’s the importance of connectivity and the need for a reliable and fast internet service to that connectivity. The key to improving this connectivity and access to high-speed internet is through fibre-to-the-home and rural fibre initiatives.
One company helping provide this connectivity through above and below ground installations is Edmonton-based Polar Communications. While the company itself may be newer to the industry, its leadership has spent many years in the industry working for other contracting groups or service providers.
Polar began in 2019, when the ownership saw an opportunity to support the main telecommunication companies in western Canada that were rolling out major fibre builds worth billions of dollars.
“With the major telecom providers, there is a tremendous opportunity. We combined have decades of experience. I’ve been in this industry for three decades, and Lance Coulombe and Ward L’Heureux [general managers] have many, many, years,” says Doug Sedgwick, president and owner of Polar Communications. “With all that experience, knowledge and relationships that we have built over the years, we knew we could compete in this space.”
The leadership team started off by securing major contracts as a prime contractor for Telus to install fibre throughout Alberta. Thanks in part to the pandemic and the increase in customers signing up for fibre internet, Polar Communications was able to grow from a couple employees in early 2019 to 60 employees and using several sub-contractors for support as needed.
Polar Communications covers all aspects of the fibre installation space. It has aerial crews with ladder trucks and long-range buckets to handle all the aerial drops and run lines through existing conduit systems. Where there is no existing conduit or unusable conduit that’s when its underground crews come into play.
To handle the underground work, the company have Rival T7 hydro excavators, Vermeer D8x12 Navigator horizontal directional drills (HDD), DCI locators, as well as vibratory plows and a lot of shovels. It’s also looking to add a Vermeer D10x15 S3 to its roster to work more efficiently through the hard ground in the winter months, as well as harder terrain in the summer months.
“Most of our work and employee count is centered around those [underground installation] job functions and that’s where we’ve been able to build a really great team and a strong program,” says Sedgwick. “All of that has happened over a relatively short period of just over two years. Through the people we brought on board, we have established a culture of getting the work done with a lot of pride, integrity and innovation. This has established us as one of the best-in-class partners for Telus and has opened the door to many other opportunities.”
Innovating Fibre Installs
One of the innovations that was key to this growth isn’t something new to the HDD industry, but it did change the way that service providers looked at planning and marketing their service connections. Polar’s team convinced Telus to let them run a pilot project installing fibre in the winter months. Previously, Telus and other providers would shut down the installations for the winter and the marketing and customer acquisition strategies were built in that regard.
“It started out with us trying to figure out how to keep our crews working year-round. We hired some very good people and we wanted to keep going and were looking at the different opportunities we had, and what we could do with the business to keep them going all year,” says Sedgwick.
The leadership team posed the question internally about why they weren’t working year-round. They did so out of concern for losing these good employees, a real risk with a sector that typically shuts down for the winter months, save for emergency work projects. This is exacerbated by the fact that finding workers to replace those who left is becoming increasingly difficult.
“Typically, companies in this space with us are turning over and training new staff every year and then letting them go after six to eight months,” Coulombe says. “We had to figure out how to keep this team together, so we don’t have to hire and train again.”
Sedgwick and his team went to Telus and asked to perform the pilot installations, noting that in other sectors — oil and gas and municipal work — HDD was performed year-round, and Telus agreed.
“It started off as a small project where we were given a few addresses to try out. Once we proved we could do those successfully, we expanded that pilot and continued through the winter of 2019,” he says. “There was certainly some trust on their part to give us the opportunity, but then when we scaled it up, it became of more interest to them.”
He adds, “After we were able to prove to them that we could drill through the winter and be successful, it’s now become standard specifically with Telus.”
By being able to successfully work through the winter months, it has also changed the marketing plans for the service providers. By being able to install aerial and underground fibre in the winter, it allows them to market its fibre product to acquire new customers year-round.
“I don’t know that what we have done is particularly revolutionary…it’s been done in other sectors. Why it hasn’t been done in the fibre sector is one, the cost to work through winter and two, it’s difficult on the equipment,” Sedgwick says. “With so many restrictions and challenges, I think it just became commonplace that all of the drilling is done in spring and summer. What we had to prove is that we were willing to do it and that we could do it as a cost-effective price. We had to find the cost efficiencies of providing the service without breaking the bank.”
Finetuning its Fibre Work
As noted earlier, work was done during the winter on an as-needed emergency basis. As is typical with emergency projects, the cost was higher than if the work was part of a planned program. What the Polar Communications team had to do was find a way to do the work efficiently and cost-effectively and repeatedly.
“We’ve done so through our people, our technicians and the willingness to find ways to get the work done,” says Sedgwick. “One guy in particular, Spencer Mayer, who leads our underground drill program. He has been good at finding ways and refining the techniques we’ve been using so that we can be successful.”
Some of the techniques Polar Communications has employed to keep its drills turning year-round is using lighter weight hydraulic fluid, finding places to store equipment and materials inside overnight and using hydro excavators on all its winter underground installations.
The latter is a must when working in frozen ground. In the summer, crews might use a shovel to dig down 24-in. to the installation depth. In the winter, however, the frost line could be anywhere from 24 to 36 in. belowground.
“You have to do that with a hydrovac to get in the ground and get the drill started below the frost line,” says Coulombe. “Our staff in the underground team, and Spencer in particular, have gone through and figured this out for us in terms of doing the work efficiently and effectively vs. throwing more money and people at it.”
Even though the company started in early 2019, it didn’t put its full drill program together until 2020, and after the pandemic started. But looking at this sector and the COVID-19 pandemic, it changed how and where people worked. With an increased demand for faster internet speeds in the home, the creation of the company’s underground crews came at the right time.
“The timing for us with COVID certainly didn’t hurt. If anything, it helped us,” Sedgwick says. “Finding people has been the biggest challenge and 2020 didn’t seem to be as bad as 2021.”
Assembling the Right Team
Sedgwick touts his dedicated team several times during the conversation and is pleased to note that the bulk of its HDD operators and locators are people they brought in as general laborers and trained to run the drill crews.
“We’re taking the guys with a great attitude, and an aptitude and willingness to learn, and training them to run our drill crews,” he says. “What we found is that hiring really good people and promoting them from within has been a great model for our success.”
Neither Sedgwick nor Coulombe sees the work slowing down any time soon.
Polar Communications has crews working in Alberta and the interior of British Columbia, as service providers are turning the focus from installs in densely populated areas to the rural and indigenous communities.
In these more rural areas, much of the underground work is focused on running the fibre from aerial lines at the street directly to the home.
“I am not going to pretend that Polar is doing anything different [than our competitors]. We’ve gone in with the attitude that there is not a job that we will turn back. We will find a way to do it and that is what sets us apart. We have the perseverance and willingness to do it,” Sedgwick says. “There is no doubt the success at Polar has been driven by its people and its culture. We have really great people.”