5 Deployment Opportunities for RDOF Bidders, Broadband Providers, and Network Operators —
The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the significant impact on communities across the country that are unable to access the Internet for telecommuting, working from home, attending school, or receiving remote medical services.
As a result, consumer and business expectations for reliable broadband access have advanced several years in the space of a few months. Even before the global pandemic, mobile data traffic alone grew at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of over 43% per year.1 Wired demand, already high in today’s homes and businesses, will be even greater over the next few years for broadband applications such as UHD streaming and 8K video.2
In terms of the future, the broad 5G focus and advancing Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction have created even more resolve to build the infrastructure needed to build a foundation for current and future data demands, and to increase connectivity to all, particularly under-served communities across rural America.
Leading telecom and utility network owners are exploring best-practice approaches and operating models that incorporate technologies and efficiency levers to deploy future-proofed networks faster without compromising quality or driving up costs. This is particularly true of RDOF participants who must plan now for how they will meet build-out obligations and reporting requirements should they be successful in the October auction.
Modern Networks Require Innovation and Efficiency
Innovative approaches and technologies that address traditional inefficiencies and deliver customer value are critical at every stage of the project life cycle. While it may seem counter-intuitive to prioritize these investments with funding restrictions, digital technologies aid deployment continuity through unprecedented events like COVID-19, and deliver faster, superior results for all.
Here we highlight a few opportunities for telecom providers and their business partners deploying Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and wireless networks to achieve scale, efficiency, and optimal construction outcomes.
Opportunity 1. Investment in network planning and design will increase delivery confidence.
Build flexibility into your delivery model. Contractors and materials are in peak demand, and if there is ever going to be a sharp skill and material shortage in the industry, 2021 will likely be the year. Your contracting, commercial approach, and ability to respond to these types of changes are critical.
Recommendation: Invest time in defining a build strategy and utilize technology that includes flexibility mechanisms, such as the ability to:
• Redirect resources optimally without commercial restrictions.
• Respond to internal and external delivery factors, including material and resource shortfalls.
• Dynamically shift according to changing strategic priorities, such as accelerated build times or revenue realization expectations.
As is the case with most infrastructure projects, the structural disconnect between design and construction can significantly impact project timelines and costs. While the design phase of a project generally equates to less than 10% of total project investment, it can have a disproportionate impact on overall delivery success.
Recommendation: Network design is the key deliverable to define project scope and budget accurately. Across the planning and design phases, we recommend documenting and mandating a bottom-up, data-driven approach to network deployment, including Outside Plant (OSP) design, permitting, network electronics technology, and construction rules for project-wide alignment. Investing in a high-quality, digital design will deliver higher confidence in its accuracy and constructability.
Recommendation: Performance around speed, quality, and risk, should be well-defined. Incentivize contractors to reach or exceed targets, and enable them to share in the upside. Ideas here include a weighted incentive based on speed and quality performance, and collaborative win-win use cases to maintain contractor engagement over the long-term. We recommend sharing relevant data and tools across contractors and operators to streamline governance and consistently measure efficiencies.
Opportunity 3. Create efficiencies and control costs by utilizing innovative construction management tools and techniques.
Given current market dynamics, it’s critical to streamline design and construction handovers. A great deal of effort and highly skilled engineering expertise is involved in network design; however, the level of detail in the design for construction crews is rarely consistent or clearly defined.
Recommendation: Identify digital technologies that transform geospatial network designs into thousands of sequenced and deliverable digital tasks. One solution that can help transform this process is Render’s Digital Network Construction platform, replacing all physical construction packs for an entirely paperless network delivery.
Telecom providers and their partners both win by eliminating waste from construction and ensuring that resources focus on constructible tasks instead of repeatedly solving the problem of where to go and what to do next. Paper-based, PDF build documents and disparate data sources — particularly when shared via email and spreadsheets — are error-prone, and reduce confidence in data and decisions.
From feasibility and design data to construction data collected in the field, ultimately, the quality of data and its integration into downstream network operations systems is key to optimizing visibility and control while enabling timely decisions at all stages of deployment.
Recommendation: The vast volumes of build data should be available in a centralized view for real-time interrogation by project stakeholders looking to make informed decisions without construction delays. By thinking about construction data and downstream system requirements before commencing construction, crews can capture consistent and complete geospatial data to streamline customer connections and handovers to network operations after deployment. To minimize time-to-market and manual handover errors, implement digitized interfaces between construction and operations systems to ensure that record and service activations are automated.
Opportunity 4. Automate and optimize workforce scheduling to improve productivity.
Traditional construction methods use a civil-construction-project approach to delivery. This may suit single-location construction projects but not distributed, dependency-driven mobile workforces that build large-scale networks. As demand increases for skilled labor and materials, contractor capacity is expected to become an industry-wide constraint. By reducing manual processes and increasing efficiencies, productivity and quality will increase, and contractor retention will likely improve.
Recommendation: Replacing construction prints and associated manual handoffs with digital workflows and automation will ensure field teams are equipped with everything they need to deliver construction tasks
autonomously. Digital tasks specify what they need to do and what materials they need to complete the task-at-hand, all on a mobile, maps-based interface. Data and artifacts can be captured and assigned based on an optimal build sequence to maximize resource productivity.
Opportunity 5. Adopt processes that allow for visibility and control for better decision-making and real-time performance tracking.
The ability to synthesize and process the large amounts of data required to implement a geographically dispersed fiber or wireless network is critical to efficient and quality network deployment. For successful RDOF applicants, there are key delivery milestones and performance metrics to track deployment progress as well as considerable short- and long-term reporting obligations that will require winning bidders to be compliant or face substantial penalties.
Recommendation: Identify end-to-end digital solutions that provide a common platform for all stakeholders to predict, plan, optimize, and report on delivery progress. Providing greater visibility into construction crew performance, material utilization, quality, and geospatial progress enables better build decisions. Specific to RDOF, confidence that the network rollout plan will be completed on-time and on-budget is primary. The ability to track progress in real-time ensures government reporting requirements are simplified, and there is early identification of performance issues or at-risk delivery milestones. In addition, most of these state and federal funding programs also carry long-term reporting requirements. Compliance does not end with the completion of the network. Providers participating in such programs need to consider how they are going to retain records and be compliant for 5-10 years, so the quality and accessibility of project data long-term should be a consideration.
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The Perfect Storm
As pandemic-related demand and rural broadband investment increases, the obligation is on broadband providers and network operators to identify efficiencies and adopt advances in technology to capitalize on the market opportunity available to themselves and their customers — particularly those participating in the upcoming RDOF auction tasked with building out networks to the highest cost rural areas in the country.
Attempting to achieve this without innovation will result in less than ideal results. Leveraging digitalization can offer a significant opportunity to accelerate 5G networks, and close the digital divide for millions of rural households
Resources and Notes
1. ACG Research, 2018.
2. Cisco Annual Internet Report, March 2020.