Overview of Community Broadband in the Digital Transformation
The Digital Transformation is upon us. Digital technology, Internet applications, and Internet-connected devices are now an integral part of all of our lives, driving bandwidth demand increases and putting ever more strain on communications networks. With this new reality, one can easily argue that access to high-speed broadband has transitioned to an integral part of the daily life of a 21st Century citizen. In many cases, high-speed Internet is viewed as a critical commodity just like electric, gas, and water services, since it provides access to digital services and content necessary to participate in the new digital economy. The availability of high-speed broadband also is vital for the economic viability and growth of communities as well. Organizations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) have provided studies highlighting the benefits investment in high-speed broadband have had on local economies. New technologies — Smart Grid, Smart Cities, the Internet of Things (IoT), among others — are contributing to the ever-increasing demand for more bandwidth. Rural economies are also finding investments in high-speed broadband as worthwhile given, in many cases, the lack of investment by the incumbent communications service providers.
How will Your Telecommunications Organization Meet the Need?
With all of these factors (plus many more), it is no wonder we are seeing significant interest by local communities in improving high-speed broadband access in their area. This blog is meant to outline the key decision points and processes utilities and municipalities can use to evaluate broadband needs in their communities, and what the appropriate infrastructure deployments and service offerings are to successfully meet those needs both now and in the future. It also highlights how the ArcGIS Platform and GIS based fiber-management tools are critical to support the analysis, design, and network operations and management aspects of planning, designing, and deploying broadband networks.
Identifying the public sentiment and demand for high-speed broadband is one of the critical first steps in evaluating a municipal or utility broadband service.How happy are current residents and businesses with their current service offerings?How likely would they be to switch given a new offering?Would a lower price point on certain speeds incentivize a switch?How does the satisfaction with existing city or utility services stack up against incumbent telecom or cable providers? Questions like this can provide a litmus test for how attractive a community broadband service offereing would be to residents.
Data samples gleaning the demand for these new potential services can shed light into the interest and possible take rate the utility or municipality can expect. Anchor institutions (e.g., police, fire, libraries, hospitals, etc.) are also key stakeholders in these broadband efforts. So meeting with them to understand their needs and to gauge their interest is an important step. Some communities have legislative barriers preventing utilities or municipalities from providing high-speed broadband services, so it is also important to evaluate the regulatory landscape and any hurdles that may be encountered when pursuing municipal or utility broadband. Lastly, reaching out to or researching other municipalities and utilities who have implemented high-speed broadband to understand their experiences and lessons learned can provide important insight into the overall process.
Step 1: A Broadband Feasibility Study is Key
Once the initial data gathering and research is undertaken, and a more detailed analysis on the viability of implementing high-speed broadband is needed, a broadband feasibility study is the next step. Broadband feasibility studies provide in depth evaluations into topics that include these:
- The current state of broadband in the community or region
- Demand projections and key areas of growth that should be considered
- Business model evaluation of broadband and what opportunities exist for the new services
- Architectural and Service considerations
Broadband feasibility studies do not all need to lead to a municipality or utility choosing to deploy Fiber to the Home (FTTH). Many studies highlight the value of just building out backbone fiber infrastructure and fiber rings for utility communications or municipal anchor institutions and businesses. In certain cases, this is a cost effective option to deploy more robust communications infrastructure in a cost-conscious manner, while keeping the option of extending to FTTH at a later time.
GIS can play an important role in the creation of community broadband study. The study will draw on all available GIS details, including existing fiber routes and equipment locations, along with available conduit. GIS can also be used to produce “heat maps” or density analysis showing concentrations of population and commercial businesses, and to help identify representative areas for pilot designs and build outs.
Step 2: Engage the Community
Once the broadband feasibility study has been performed and the recommendations reviewed, it is important to broadcast the findings and planned network decisions to the community. Be it public outreach, advertising campaigns, or attending local public access television to talk about the initiatives, constant and consistent communication about the upcoming plans are vital to building support. Also, be prepared to talk to questions from concerned stakeholders about:
- Whether utilities or municipalities should be providing high-speed broadband services
- The total amount of money needed, and if it will be a sound investment
- With increased service levels from incumbent cable and telecom providers, will municipal broadband be competitive
Making sure stakeholders are aware of the benefits and drawbacks of the new network being offered are critical to them being educated and prepared to make informed decisions that best serve the needs of the community.
GIS is Critical to the Design, Construction, and As-Builting Process
Once the decision has been made to design and build the network, it is important to work with an experienced company for your design and build services.Based on the architecture, equipment, service and network usage decisions made in previous phases, it is now time to start creating the layout of the network.Designing the broadband network is one of the primary areas where Esri GIS technology is a critical part of a successful project.
GIS provides the ability to get a holistic view of the area needing to be served. This includes aerial imagery, key topographic considerations, railroad crossings, water features, subdivision layouts, and other site conditions that will influence the design.The use of an Esri GIS based fiber design and management tool is key in the design process as well.Generally, a design starts by placing the basic path and structure information to build the conceptual layout for how an area will be served.From there, physical network assets such as fiber cables, splice enclosures, splitter cabinets, multiport service terminals (MSTs), network access points (NAPs), storage loops, and other key network components are laid out.
The ability of a GIS based fiber management system to provide a library of network components for easy placement along with the full modeling of network splicing, patching, and terminations is really crucial, and provides benefits during the design process, but also once the network has been built and needs to be managed. Using a system like this allows for a complete design including construction prints, a detailed bill of materials (BOM) and costing information as well. Network attributes can also be configured to track which Optical Line Terminal (OLT) port a certain passive optical network (PON) is being serviced from. Given that data for the street network, right of way network, and customer premises to be served all exist within a centralized database, this opens up the ability for design layout automation opportunities where pre-defined business rules and parameters can be configured and an introductory pre-design can be generated by advanced software tools. These tools can reduce the manual nature of the of design work, and ensure full compliance with the design principles guiding the network layout.
Since the design process is using the ArcGIS platform, design layouts can be shared via a GIS portal (ArcGIS Enterprise or ArcGIS Online) as web services to be consumed by desktop, web, and mobile applications for as-built updates, additional field data collection tasks, or to be made available to other stakeholders within an organization.
Mobile GIS tools can also play an important role in this stage. Construction crews with the ability to perform edits in the field can change the status of cables from proposed to installed/as-built as work progresses, use redlines to highlight areas of the build that need to be altered in the GIS, or to denote changes from the original design.
Once construction has been completed, mobile GIS can also allow splicers to view proposed connectivity based on the design, and then provide additional information and/or changes as the splicing work is performed.
Improved Network Operations and Maintenance for Community Broadband
Once the network has been designed and constructed it is critical to have the network documented in your GIS System of Record to capture and maintain network changes, expansions and as a geographic resource to tie to other critical business systems like Operational Support/Business Support Systems (OSS/BSS), Network Management Systems (NMS) and Asset Management/Work Order Management Systems (AMS/WMS).
Once the network is built and customers are being provided service, your GIS based Fiber Management system will be crucial for capturing fibers assigned to current customers or services, dark fibers that may be leased or are planned to be leased, damaged fibers, and other important network documentation. Since it is the single source for physical network infrastructure and connectivity, the GIS based fiber management system will also play an important role in network planning since it allows engineers to see what fibers and ports are available versus in-use as they plan network expansions, providing services to new customers, or expanding internal communications capabilities.
Success Stories Regarding Community Broadband in the Digital Transformation
Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) operates one of the most successful municipally owned FTTP systems in the country. LPC had deployed an extensive Esri environment prior to embarking on their FTTP venture. The 400 mile fiber network design was completed in ArcGIS and all construction maps and technical services work orders were created from the ArcGIS databases. The network architecture posed certain challenges when it came to producing easy to understand bills of materials and work orders. System designers overcame these hurdles though the development and execution of Python and Visual Basic scripts.
San Luis Valley, Colorado
San Luis Valley REC (SLVREC) started their fiber journey with the deployment of a fiber backbone connecting their primary electric facilities. Like LPC, they were GIS users and wanted their fiber designs to be compatible their electric GIS assets. As a Coop, they also required staking sheets for all construction activities. Staking sheets show each network building block in a tabular format. System designers used VB and Python scripts to produce the staking sheets, as there were no other economical options available to the team. SLVREC is now expanding their fiber network to include connections to member homes and businesses. They continue to use GIS based design tools and document production utilities to complete this work.
Beverly Hills, California
The City of Beverly Hills is in the process of deploying a citywide FTTP system. The FTTP network was designed using a combination of standard and customized Esri based applications and tools. The fiber design was completed quickly using different automation techniques that sped up feature editing and attribute updates. The new fiber network relies heavily on the use of existing streetlight conduits, which are documented in the city’s GIS databases.
With the technology advances that we are seeing globally coupled with the dramatic increases in bandwidth demands, it is no wonder that there is so much excitement regarding municipal/utility broadband and its impacts on local communities. Whether it’s dark fiber, lit services for businesses and anchor institutions, or a complete fiber to the home offering for residents, network investments should be evaluated in a methodical and industry proven approach. This blog highlights the steps an organization can take to determine if making this type of investment will generate the desired benefits, along with highlighting areas where GIS technology is crucial to a successful network design and implementation.
About Your Collaborator, Neil Shaw, Uptown Services
SSP Innovations is pleased to collaborate on this blog post with Neil Shaw, Principal of Uptown Services. Neil has over 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry. As a principal for Uptown Services, Neil has built the firm’s municipal broadband practice from scratch over the past 18 years. His business case financials have been the basis for over $200M in publicly financed municipal broadband projects. Neil has completed designs for seven FTTP networks and two middle mile fiber backbone networks since 2006. Uptown’s designs encompass more the 1,500 miles of fiber plant and pass over 150,000 homes and businesses. You can reach Neil at email@example.com or 303-554-5854.