The fall of copper: Watch Telia shift technologies

The only reminder of life out here would be the distant drumming of a woodpecker somewhere and the creaking of the pines in the wind. But today, something else is going on. In fact, it is actually history in the making. Here, at the end of an hour-long detour east from Linköping, Sweden, Telia Company is taking down the telephone poles that have connected the locals to the rest of the world for over a century. Taking them down for good, but carrying on the connectivity legacy that previous generations started.

The rented two-wheel-drive Subcompact had to be left near the main route exit, and only Telia's project partner's heavy utility truck sufficed for the last stretch of crooked, pot-holed roads leading to mid-nowhere. It's where Telia's team is working for the day. Actually, the team is led by Stefan Caldehed at Skanova, Telia Company's networks subsidiary. Skanova's Madelene Klaesson is also here. So is contractor project managers Fredrik Henriksson and Anders Andersson as well as installation technicians Markus Karlsson and Marcus Nyberg.

Far from Power Points and meeting rooms, this team is carrying out the down-and-dirty, hands-on part of what is Telia Sweden's technology switch effort, called Framtidens Nät 2, or "Networks of the future 2". In the first one, about 300 000 poles were taken down during a period of seven years.

When the second wave began in the summer of 2016, there were around two million poles left across the country. A decision has been made which seals the fate of 630 000 of them. So far 35 000 have come down, and the orders have been sent out for another 175 000.

The idea is, of course, to remove the cables and subsequently the redundant poles that, to this day, have provided many Swedes with copper-based connectivity. Fiber and wireless solutions is coming here too now.

They come down by the sheer ripping and beating force of a steel claw at the end of an agile mini-excavator or, if it's too thick for the excavator to get in, by using an attachable high-pressure pump which simply blows the pole out of the ground. A four-wheeled dirt bike drags the pole out of the brush, or it is simply carried out by hand. The cable has usually been disconnected and removed by way of good old-fashioned climbing and cutting.

It soon hits you that what is happening here in plain view is a country taking a major step forward in the technological evolution. These people in boots and hard hats are paving the way for a totally digitalized society. This is what they talk so much about in corporate presentations. It's history in the flesh.

And one can't help also thinking about, well, things past. On one of the poles now laying in the mud, there is a worn-down steel plate. It says, "1906."

"I am fascinated by the telephone network that those who came before us managed to build once upon a time, and I sometimes picture them working here to get the poles in the ground, over 100 years ago," Caldehed says. "Some lines are extremely far-reaching, and have sometimes been put up to accommodate a single household. Furthermore, some poles are in such difficult terrain that we have trouble reaching them even today, and once we do reach them we have to carry them out on foot or even use a helicopter. A lot of people must have made a huge effort over a long time to provide Sweden with fixed telephony back in those days."

 He says that he does feel that the team contributes to taking the next step towards the digitalized society.

"Yes, there is a sense of pride in helping to modernize the country. We're a great team working on this: Madelene Klaesson, Mikael Lomander and I. Without the two of them none of this would have worked. Then of course, we have our fantastic contractors. Their hard work is invaluable."

Madelene Klaesson is the air traffic controller of the technology-shifting business. She finds the poles and coordinates. Each pole has its own coordinates with attached information about that part of the network. In Telia’s systems, she localizes specific poles and assess the network.

"My job – and biggest challenge – is then to plan and put together all the orders, and to coordinate with our contractors.

The plan is not to remove each and every telephone pole in Sweden. Some are still in good condition and do carry fiber, and therefore can still be used for the networks of the future.  But the majority of the poles and most of the cable have been so worn down by decades of rain, cold and wind that they simply need to come down. According to Caldehed, the customers out here get much better internet service with Telia's mobile network.

"Our job here is to keep the network healthy and to modernize it, he says.

"Just like the gardener removes dead branches from a garden."

 

Watch Telia's team in action, working hands-on to carry on and modernize the connectivity legacy:

FACTS:

The numbers:

  • 300 000 poles were removed during the first technology shift, or Framtidens Nät 1.
  • As the second technology shift – Framtidens Nät 2 – started in 2016 there were still more than two million telephone poles in the country.
  • 35 000 poles have been removed within Framtidens Nät 2 so far.
  • The decisions have been made for 630 000 specific poles to be removed during Framtidens Nät 2, so far.

The process:

  1. Bundling poles and areas into fewer, large orders to the contractors has proven a lot more sustainable.
  2. The pole is located, assessed and taken down
  3. All the poles are transported to one of three facilities: Umeå Energy, Tekniska Verken in Linköping, Ekokem in Kumla.
  4. The poles go through a first check-up and poles that are deemed reusable are separated from those that will be destroyed.
  5. Poles that have been deemed reusable are sent for a careful inspection by several parties at a facility in Mariannelund, Sweden. They are then reused within Skanova's operations.

 The environment:

  • Creosote is currently the most suitable agent for this type of impregnation, done to protect against environmental factors. Impregnation of utility poles has been done throughout history. The spread of creosote is limited and, according to a study, leakage may occur only within four decimeters of the pole.
  • Telia is continuously investigating alternatives, currently looking at what may be appropriate to test.
  • Telia has robust guidelines for placement, handling and storage of poles. Obsolete poles are handled at approved incineration facilities that recycle the incineration energy.Telia does not allow any sale or transfer of its poles.