Leveraging All of Your Assets

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TDS Telecom’s Asset Management Program Evolves

(This article originally ran in the September 2015 issue of OSP Magazine)

The poles, pedestals, equipment, and cable facilities in the great outdoors are working perfectly. Then a violent storm comes through, or a letter from the state or local municipality demands facilities (such as cables, poles, etc.) be moved. Your technicians and engineers spring into action. However, it’s uncertain exactly what has been impacted or is needed to fix the issue. When this happens, resolution is slowed to a snail’s pace.

That’s where asset management comes in. Within minutes, precise information, location, and equipment can be reviewed and understood. Technicians can gather the necessary tools and equipment, then set off to fix the issue.

Without an asset management solution, the process is considerably more challenging, time-consuming, and includes a lot of guesswork. It’s the number one reason TDS Telecommunications Corp. (TDS) is moving toward a GIS-based asset management model.

The Process Begins

“In order to leverage asset management, you first have to know where all your assets are,” says Kevin Berrett, manager of OSP GIS Engineering at TDS.

To kick start this initiative, we started with a pole audit. The company has hundreds of thousands of poles in place across the country. And, they plan to locate all of them — precisely.

Berrett says teams are currently working on gathering information. “Our contractors and technicians are physically going to each piece of equipment, capturing coordinates, recording pertinent information, geotagging photographs, and then uploading them to our GIS database.” (See Figure 1.)


Figure 1. The flow of GIS data, from database to TDS employee and back again.

The quality of the information and photos are consistent, even as locations and people entering the details vary from location to location. It’s because of technological advances.

“Technology has really improved and makes it easier to get consistent information about the exact placement of every piece of OSP,” Berrett said. “We knew where our assets were before. But now, we know where everything is — with quantifiable precision.”

You might imagine, given the breadth and complexity of a large telecom’s OSP, you would need a powerful computer, hours of training, and a fast Internet connection to make use of asset management. Thankfully, that is not the case.

Today’s easy-to-use, mobile-friendly, web-based GIS interface makes viewing and editing OSP data as easy as sending a text. It can be used practically anywhere. Coupled with up-to-date, spatially accurate data, OSP engineers can easily gather the necessary information, saving both time and money.

“More importantly,” says Berrett, “we can respond to customers more quickly, because we know what’s needed to resolve any issues with their service.”

Asset Management in Place, Real-Time Impact

“Everything is faster, and easier, with asset management,” Berrett states.

For example, when Mother Nature does wreak havoc, taking down poles and destroying pedestals, our technicians now turn to their mobile device to learn about the damaged asset.

Berrett refers to it as the power of imagery, noting, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the asset management information and mapping details are worth a million!”

With the image and details in hand, the technicians are able to locate the exact same item for replacement as well as select the correct tools. (See Figure 2.) “The biggest advantage is they are heading to the site fully prepared to resolve or restore service,” said Berrett.


Figure 2. An example collection scenario using ArcGIS collector on a tablet with an external Bluetooth GPS receiver.

In cases when the equipment is completely gone, the visuals and GIS coordinates will help the technicians identify the precise location.

Once service is restored and we are ready to file a claim with insurance, Berrett says, “We’re able to provide before and after photos. It makes filing a claim much quicker and easier.”

Having photos, especially date and time-stamped photos, is also helpful in the following situations:
• Compliance. From time to time, local municipalities send notifications that assets are out of compliance. A comparison of the photos and coordinates noted in the GIS application to present-day photos can reveal if something has been moved.
• Expanding or upgrading the network. With ongoing expansion, knowing where your assets are
is helpful for planning, engineering, and budgeting.
• Co-location requests for attachments. When other companies reach out looking to attach their equipment to your poles, knowing which poles are available is critical. With a GIS application, it also makes tracking these new attachments easier. Billing for usage also becomes much more efficient.

“Having photos gives us the opportunity to understand the expenses and revenues being incurred when poles are jointly used,” says Berrett. “It’s another layer of checks and balances. And it helps ensure the accuracy of our bottom line.”

What’s Next?

We are applying the same asset tracking philosophy to all of our equipment, including pedestals. According to Berrett, we have a better picture of where our other assets are, but we have work to do before we have precise information on everything.

“Having a clear and precise picture of the location of all our assets is critical,” commented Berrett. “It will help us immensely when it comes to repair, relocation, and planning.”

While we have made significant progress toward a fully functional and integrated GIS system that contains precise documentation of all our assets, the company continues to gather information. During this multi-year project, we are investigating ways to add more tracking details. We are also looking at new advances in technology that could help improve their asset tracking options.

In addition to helping with OSP efforts, inside plant engineers and technicians are also finding value with asset management. Currently, the inside plant team has access to floor plans, rack layouts, and some photos.

We are exploring the potential of generating 3D data of floor plans, rack layouts, and photos of equipment
that will create a virtual visualization of the company’s central offices. The 3D imagery would enable the engineering team to digitally move equipment around and measure exact spacing.

“With 3D, the engineering team could actually see the equipment, layout, and every detail,” says Tim Rooney, Network Specialist on the OSP GIS engineering team at TDS. “It puts the information at their fingertips and helps our technicians, engineers, and employees become much more effective and efficient.”

According to Rooney, 3D imagery would also eliminate the current data gathering process. Today, our engineers contact a local field technician and explain the visuals or information they need. Then, they wait for the technician to visit the site — hoping they will report back the precise information requested.

Lessons Learned

When implementing any new software, device, or procedure, you can always expect a few headaches. So, as you might imagine, when we started implementing asset management, there was a fair share of frustration.

According to Rooney, an ideal asset management system is both intuitive and efficient, as shown in Figure 3. It is efficient to use (usability), while preserving the complexity of the subject being documented (data integrity), and producing data that will easily be integrated into existing systems (interoperability). Our first attempt at overcoming the Iron Triangle resulted in a system that excelled in interoperability and maintained adequate data integrity, but required significant patience to use and even greater patience to learn.


Figure 3. The ‘Iron Triangle’ represents the ideal asset management system, which is intuitive and efficient to use, preserves the integrity of the data, and produces data that will ensure interoperability with existing systems.

“The crucial insight we gained,” said Rooney, “clearly pointed toward usability as the most important. If it’s not easy to use, it won’t be used, or used very well.”

The “Collector” application released recently by Esri helped us to finally overcome the Iron Triangle. “It’s an application that works on most smartphones, and fully integrates with our servers and database systems. It made the process a lot easier for our engineering team!”

Now, employees and contractors alike can create or update GIS plant data quickly and easily.

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Contractors Get It!

In New Hampshire, TDS has recently placed more than 1,000 miles of new fiber. When we hired contractors to perform the work, they included a requirement that the contractors provide GIS details.

As the project got underway, contractors immediately began uploading pole numbers, details on what’s being placed, and photos. The data is all geo referenced.

“We can tell exactly where the technicians were standing when they took the photos,” said Kevin Berrett, Manager of OSP GIS Engineering. “It’s proof they completed the project and installed what they said they were going to. Plus, some of the photos they’re able to take during construction simply couldn’t be taken at a later time. Including GIS asset tracking in their contract is simply immeasurable and cost-effective.”

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