Brant Carter: For Faster Fiber Buildout, Combine GIS, Deployment and Operations

Tightening connections between network operators, asset owners, and contractors catches surprises earlier.

Brant Carter: For Faster Fiber Buildout, Combine GIS, Deployment and Operations
The author of this Expert Opinion is Brant Carter, Sitetracker’s director of industry products

Wherever you look, fiber growth continues unabated. U.S. fiber broadband passings rose 13% in 2022 on top of similar growth the year before, and the Fiber Broadband Association expects federal funding programs such as BEADRDOFReConnect, and others to further boost fiber-to-the-home deployments in the next five years.

In the UK, the number of fiber lines increased by 52% in 2022 despite overall fixed-broadband growth of just 0.7%. Major operators and altnets such as Community Fibre are collectively spending billions to bring fiber connectivity to tens of millions of homes in the coming years. 

Europe looks to be on track to meet ambitious targets set out by Gigabit Society 2025 and Digital Decade strategies. Similar growth is afoot in AsiaAfrica, and Latin America

Now it’s a matter of building out networks quickly and profitably. Two mainstream tools – geospatial information systems for mapping and design and deployment operations management systems for work management, asset management, and more – are now being integrated for that very purpose. Each has its own track record of helping network operators and contractors deploy fiber networks. But they’re better together.

Different strengths

The advantages of GIS are familiar. They help network planners, designers, and engineers visualize their networks. That informs everything from troubleshooting network-ops problems to planning for future growth. GIS may also support sales and marketing efforts by visualizing network availability to potential customers. 

Deployment operations management systems are less of a household name, but critical infrastructure companies have found that these systems can shorten fiber development timelines by roughly 33% by combining program planning, project management, and fieldwork management capabilities across hundreds of simultaneous deployments. 

These cloud-based systems help manage mass deployments, like FTTH and other network expansion initiatives, in a few key ways. Templates honed by the lessons of thousands of fiber jobs embody best practices across the design, build, and maintenance phases. Those templates and other tools standardize repeatable elements while enabling project-by-project variation based on equipment, accessibility, priority, staffing, material availability, and other factors. Standardization and repeatability in turn drive improvements to forecasts and overall data quality, helping managers make better data-driven decisions such as scheduling crews and allocating resources. Mobile apps bring field crews and subcontractors into the fold. Dashboards and reports tap into data in real time, keeping everyone from top management to field crews on the same page. 

So, what does integrating GIS and deployment operations management systems bring to fiber deployment? Think of GIS as a common language between network planners, engineers, project managers, and construction crews in the field, as well as developers, network operators, asset owners, and contractors. But the various players all speak different dialects of that common language, and you end up with “lost in translation” issues. Handoffs get muffed; traceability suffers; faulty or incomplete fieldwork leads to additional truck rolls.

Those problems affect a project’s entire lifecycle. Combining deployment forecasting with geospatial data tightens the connections between planning, design, engineering, and construction to increase accuracy and efficiency, speed fiber deployment, and cut costs while accelerating time to revenue. Let’s drill down a bit.

Planning and design

Consider the BEAD program. Yes, there’s U.S. government money available for fiber. But you still need a viable commercial model, and some towns and neighborhoods present better business cases than others, particularly in rural areas. GIS provides a great common language to drive fiber-network planning at a high level. But ultimately, you need on-the-ground (and under-the-ground) details to understand the true cost per home passed, the number of homes you’ll actually pass (buried impediments, for example, can trim back a GIS map-based estimate), and the take rate among the homes you do pass, among other variables. 

Those estimates will sharpen as you run fiber in a given neighborhood, and those lessons, when fed back into the GIS maps quickly, inform the next phase of planning and design. Historically, jobsite-based revisions have taken weeks or longer to find their way back into GIS maps. By integrating GIS with deployment operations management, you enable the creation, through new GIS layers, of as-built drawings more or less as you build. That knowledge brings planning and execution closer together. That saves time and money down the line.

Engineering and construction

You can only design so far on a map. It falls on field crews to reconcile design with reality. Fiber imitates life: The earlier you catch a problem, the easier and cheaper the solution will be. The fielding process that can precede a fiber run, in which an engineer walks the design and notes inevitable inconsistencies, is too often a missed opportunity in fiber development. There just hasn’t been a good way to update GIS maps and associated designs fast enough to make a difference for construction teams. So the design-and-engineering deliverables stray from ground truth and the construction team – and, by extension, all stakeholders – pay the price as surprises mount. 

With GIS integrated into deployment operations management, fielding can quickly feed back into GIS maps and higher-quality, easier-to-build designs. And the surprises the construction teams do unearth get fed back into those designs quickly.

Bottom-line impact

The faster you finish a neighborhood, the faster it’s lit and the faster you can sell to and activate subscribers. The precision and visibility you gain from integrated GIS-deployment operations management helps sales and marketing approach customers based on actual service availability, typically weeks earlier than usual.

That’s found money for operators. Contractors also benefit from faster completion times: they often use debt to float their business, and getting paid faster is increasingly crucial in a high-interest-rate environment.

Integrating GIS mapping with deployment operations management systems connects engineers, construction crews, subcontractors, local municipalities, and other stakeholders into one secure, collaborative tool. It improves design and engineering accuracy and creates feedback loops fostering continuous improvement, thereby smoothing future deployments.

That benefits everyone down the line, from those planning and scheduling work to those pitching high-speed data service to the right customers, sooner. The result is faster, more efficient, and more profitable fiber network growth that benefits everyone involved in serving the world’s insatiable appetite for high-speed data.

As director of telecom industry products at Sitetracker, Brant Carter helps wireless operators use recent infrastructure budgets to expand broadband in rural and underserved areas. Sitetracker is the deployment operations management platform of choice for most of the world’s largest wireless, telecom and tower operators. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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