California has upwards of four million of the poles, which can hold electric, phone, cable, Internet, and emergency responder equipment--sometimes at all once. But regulators often don’t know what condition they’re in. Many of the poles were built after World War II, and the records are unreliable.
"It’s a problem for all Californians, because they’re reaching the end of their life-span," says Michael Picker, president of the state Public Utilities Commission. "The average phone pole probably has the equivalent telecom and computing capacity as the entire U.S. in the 1960s. So they’re very valuable."
Picker says many poles are weather-beaten, termite-eaten and over-loaded with equipment.
"With all that weight on them, and the growing brittleness, they’re more likely to topple in a heavy wind and sometimes cause fires and sometimes cause electrocutions," says Picker.
The commission has had difficulty fining utilities that weigh down poles past their limits. It says current rules make it difficult to punish power companies and impossible to issue citations to telecommunications companies.
The commission is currently trying to change those rules and to figure out how to track the state’s telephone poles.
A state investigation of the 2007 fire in Malibu found three utility poles sparked the blaze, after they broke in strong wind.
Electric company Southern California Edison is now spending more than $1 billion to survey poles in its territory.
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