Superfast broadband is increasingly recognized as a vital enabler of future economic and social development. Full fiber and 5G could provide an economic uptick of $1.3 trillion, forming the connecting thread for the Internet of Things (IoT), interlinking everything from smart healthcare services to Industry 4.0 assembly lines. The accompanying value chain could provide some 22.8 million jobs and $3.8 trillion in economic output by 2035.
Yet the US currently lags behind international competitors in implementing this vital enabling technology. For example, while Nokia started producing 5G equipment in India in 2008, Ericsson only delivered its first 5G base stations in Texas in 2020. 14% of all US children aged between 3-18 are without home Internet access, and over a third of those in rural areas are denied access to quality broadband.
The US is enacting several measures including financial support to accelerate implementation by diversifying the telecoms market. The Biden administration recently put superfast broadband at the heart of its post-COVID economic rebuild and pledged $100 billion of a $2 trillion infrastructure plan to improve broadband infrastructure, with the aim of providing high-speed broadband connectivity for all citizens by 2029. The FCC has removed regulatory barriers to deploying 5G base stations in cities. This is creating a highly competitive US telecoms marketplace reminiscent of the 1990s era where the industry included a diverse array of players such as Alcatel, Nortel, Lucent, Siemens and Motorola.
It is vital to have a diverse market of start-up providers, Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), electric co-ops, and public and private organizations willing to share spare bandwidth to augment the efforts of large operators to achieve nationwide coverage and reach areas that are otherwise commercially unviable. A telecoms market that is both competitive and cohesive is needed to achieve the ambition of nationwide coverage. This requires collaboration and sharing of dark fiber, data, and even infrastructure across organizations and sectors to avoid unnecessary new infrastructure. It also requires smarter sharing of data on everything from local human settlements and services to meteorological and ecological hazards across each area to help plan the most cost-effective routes to the widest market with new infrastructure.
The Data Divide
The challenge is that many telecommunication operators, fiber network providers, and other commercial and governmental organizations, are not capturing, integrating, or opening up their rich network data resources across departments and across the sector. They are struggling to integrate internal information with data sources outside their organization that could help plan new infrastructure.
Crucially, they rarely link data with location to reveal new pathways to wider coverage and identify the site and source of hazards to predictively maintain infrastructure and reduce the cost and risk of new deployments. Workflows such as engineering and construction and important datasets such as as-builts and asset registries are fragmented in different formats, proprietary apps, or on spreadsheets and paper maps.
Many smaller operators are not documenting their network in a digital System of Record (SoR) and what data does exist is siloed and inaccessible to key stakeholders across the business. Network data is rarely held in open, mobile-friendly formats which can accommodate a remote workforce or BYOD practices and thus excludes vital input from workers and contractors on the ground. All too often data is also inaccessible to other departments or incompatible with other data sources such as local meteorological, social, or economic data.
The absence of effective, integrated, and remotely available systems of record across many providers creates major organizational blind spots and leaves sales, marketing, executive and NOC teams in the dark about their own assets.
Offices are deprived of vital information such as:
- the number of dark strands in every cable,
- the amount of unused glass that is stranded or unallocated,
- the cost of serving new prospects or building-out a region,
- the most critical customers and circuits that serve them,
- and the percentage of dark fiber available for new customers or to lease to others.
Other information they struggle to access includes:
- how many miles of fiber they have in each region,
- whether a particular building is on net,
- which enclosures have reached capacity and cannot be considered for augments, and
- what alternative circuits could restore service to areas with outages and even the exact location of their infrastructure in the field.
- Many fiber network operators rely on free tools such as Google Earth and spreadsheets which are disconnected, lack mobile tools, and are simply not capable of interrogating networks in this kind of depth.
- Network data is also often collected in a form that is not amenable to integration with external datasets.
This data disconnect can hamper efforts to diversify the market as operators and other commercial organizations are missing opportunities to sell data or lease bandwidth to smaller or rural providers. Likewise, data blind spots mean smaller providers cannot easily identify cost-effective routes to expand or improve existing networks. Without a comprehensive overview of their own assets, they cannot easily integrate external datasets such as maps of existing pole ducts or nearby hazards to guide expansion.
There is an urgent necessity for adoption of optimized systems of record technology that can be shared across players in the industry to help smaller operators fill gaps in superfast broadband provisioning and ensure that every inch of unused cable is fully exploited to achieve the widest possible coverage.
As networks expand and grow to be more complex, having an accurate, live, and location-based view of existing assets is increasingly vital to planning efficient new infrastructure investments. A precise overview of where existing networks serve nearby infrastructure can help identify gaps in provisioning and opportunities to reach lucrative new customers or critical services, avoid signal interference from man-made structures or harness rooftops to help signals reach wider areas.
Some smaller organizations are now disrupting the market by adopting modern SoR solutions with a more open and decentralized approach to network data. This involves the decentralized digital capture and consolidation of data from all assets in the field and the use of open APIs to integrate with information from external sources. It involves mobile-friendly geospatial systems capable of drawing on information from a diverse array of sources from sensors to smartphones.
For example, a major US university is using advanced mobile-friendly geospatial systems to plan the most cost-effective fiber pathways to deliver coverage across its satellite campuses and support their local communities by sharing unused fiber capacity. This offers a small glimpse of what can be achieved on a national scale if companies harnessed smart data to identify more cost-effective ways to extend coverage or opportunities to lease out broadband capacity to others.
Another smaller provider in Texas is now using a purpose-built fiber system of record to consolidate location-based data from all network assets to fuel smarter planning, design, and construction, of new fiber networks.
To realize the vision of nationwide and global superfast broadband, the fiber network industry needs to dissolve data silos and embrace open and digital network information. In the future, this enables digital network twins, multi-layered geospatial information systems, and machine learning algorithms capable of everything from predictive maintenance to planning of new provisioning.
Resources and Notes
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