Leveraging GIS Is a Key to Success
This article is co-authored by Will Mitchell and Sean Myers
The foundation of municipal broadband is a fiber network running down the roads of the community, but determining which streets and how many fibers is a big challenge. It’s not a cliché to imagine this network as a “road map”—not as a how-to guide to navigating the politics and processes of a public project, but rather a literal “map.” As such, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are a great way to manage your community’s fiber roadmap.
Towns, cities, and counties across the United States have been using GIS and mapping for many years. It’s part of the municipality’s technology stack, and helps manage their assets (water, sewer, roads, rights of way, etc.) and plan their community. However, both telecom and electric networks have largely been privately built and delivered, often leaving telecommunications as the odd man out in municipal GIS.
There is now a move to pull fiber networks under the municipal tent. In some cases, the goal is better broadband infrastructure for the municipality itself as an Internet consumer. Recently, the focus has expanded to municipally owned, Fiber-to-the-Home, and fiber as a utility.
Over the past few years, municipal fiber has been both promoted and criticized across industry events and publications. Typically, larger incumbent cable or telcos with a dominant local market share make the most noise against municipal fiber. Some competitive local ISPs echo the no-government argument. However, there are those advocating to bring town-owned fiber to every home; and treat it as a public asset like roads and water distribution with multiple private ISPs invited to deliver services over the same fiber “pipe.” There are also many cooperative public-private partnership models ranging from fully public to all private contracted, and all points in between.
Some of the most revealing and interesting presentations at recent trade shows and forums have been on the “pure open access” end of the scale. Several technology providers of open access network provisioning, orchestration, and consumer shopping portal tools have been demonstrating what this model looks like. It goes something like this:
1. The city (or county) builds FTTH (incrementally) to 100% of residents, paid for partially by the customers or possibly with bonds. The municipality then contracts a private company to operate and maintain the fiber network and to light it.
2. Multiple ISPs enter the market to deliver Internet and related services across the network. The result can be pure competition at this tier of the stack, driving price down and service up.
3. Consumers can log into a web portal, select a provider and a plan, and provision themselves instantly with a few mouse clicks. They shop for speed, quality, price, and customer service, and switch providers at any time.
Advocates of this three-tiered separation of concerns point to a viable business case. Each tier might cost the customer $20 per month, totaling perhaps $60 for Gigabit symmetrical speeds, sometimes less. At the foundational tier–owning the fiber–full build-out costs are intentionally covered in the model, allowing blanket roll-out to homes that are typically more expensive to reach. The contracted operator charges fair rates, and ISPs compete for subscribers. If all of this works, the municipality achieves universal broadband access, the operator is profitable in the middle tier, and the ISPs can focus on service and not infrastructure, which enables truly aggressive pricing.
The concept sounds so foreign. Heads in the room shake and get scratched. Maybe this solution is too good to be true for the community or the consumer, but examples seem to be multiplying. It’s disruptive thinking, and it certainly won’t work everywhere — there are examples of failed projects as well. It isn’t necessary in a robust competitive market, but for all of the edge cities and rural communities clamoring for better broadband, this open access model is looking quite real.
GIS data and GIS software allow municipalities to get a leg up on Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) projects, starting with planning and design. The design is based on reference data comprised of telecom relevant assets: utility poles, light poles, manholes, parcel and assessing records, public buildings, tower structures, building rooftops, conduits, and existing fiber, to name a few.
The design continues through permitting and construction, planning and scheduling; access to easements, obtaining rights of way to city-owned property, managing street openings and moratoriums.
The mapped GIS asset inventory provides all parties with key project intelligence. The community can compile and perfect this GIS data, often with in-house tools and skills, just by putting some focus on it. Really this is GIS basics–as simple as a spatially perfected point map of every fiber target in town, classified by type, unit counts, etc.
The municipal GIS team can also compile and publish potential small cell assets. Imagine a 5G story without a good GIS map — it simply does not work. A town must leverage its GIS if it wants to participate as asset owner and guide the deployment of small cells. Municipalities can map every pole and rooftop suitable for small cells and publish them for private leasing, or use this data to guide public fiber to every potential small cell site. This can result in open access backhaul enabling the next generation of densified wireless Internet, a highly related theme here.
Once the municipality’s network is constructed, the next step is implementing a fiber management platform. While a traditional municipal GIS is the perfect starting point for routes and assets, it won’t get into the network details: fiber strands, networked routes and cables, splicing, circuits, equipment, ports, etc. These details are all crucial for effective inventory, operation and maintenance of a fiber network. A GIS-based fiber management platform should make it easy to keep essential fiber mapping data in the hands and control of the network owner, and expose important detail to contract operators, all while seamlessly integrating with existing GIS systems.
At the end of the day, an actual GIS “map” is a threshold requirement for a successful broadband project. This includes fully public or private models, and all the points in between. For communities that choose to participate with local GIS data, you need a fiber road map.
About the Authors
Will Mitchell is Co-Founder and CEO of VETRO FiberMap®. Will focuses on building the VETRO FiberMap team, platform strategy, partnerships, sales and marketing. He is a GIS professional with 25 years of applied technical experience. His educational background includes an M.S. in Geography from George Mason University, and a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.
Sean Myers is Co-Founder and COO of VETRO FiberMap®. Sean is responsible for company operations, and acts as product manager for many of the company’s projects and applications. Prior to co-founding VETRO FiberMap, Sean spent 20 years working with engineering and environmental companies to build enterprise GIS solutions for various federal, state, local, and private clients.
VETRO FiberMap® is committed to serving broadband providers, and becoming an integral part of the community, building the next Internet infrastructure. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://www.vetrofibermap.com/. Follow VETRO FiberMap on Twitter @vetrofibermap or connect with them on LinkedIn.