As global events reshape our "new remote normal", citizens, businesses and communities, are relying on connectivity like never before and seeking virtual proximity in a time of physical distance. Teleworking, telehealth, and distance learning, are not possible without fast, reliable broadband. Communities, municipalities, and the telecommunications industry as a whole, are more united than ever in bridging the rural connectivity gap.
Underserved and rural communities across the country are rightfully campaigning for universal access to reliable, high-speed broadband, and the Government is responding with the formation of national mapping and stimulus strategies. Network owners and construction teams are encouraged by the investment in broadband construction, including $20 billion in near-term Government support, and are seeking new ways to ensure continuity of network deployment given the challenges presented by the Coronavirus pandemic.
All parties have real incentive to push through and to continue to deploy telecommunications infrastructure, regardless of the unprecedented challenges we face in doing so.
So what are the continuity risks, and what is certain for network owners and construction teams in these uncertain times?
Essentials for Telecommunications Workers
The Federal Government recognizes the heightened degree to which the nation is relying on communications infrastructure, extending its list of essential workers to maintain critical digital services and telecommunications construction activities.
From large telco carriers to electric cooperatives, network owners are taking extra precautions to ensure they have the inventory needed to maintain uninterrupted deployment and operations throughout the crisis. The industry’s ecosystem and global supply chain are under extreme pressure, and even the smallest of delays can impact project continuity.
While indicative fiber stockpiles still have some months to run, knowing specifically what’s required to build, and efficient material utilization, has never been more important. The ability to digitally allocate and gain greater visibility and control of how construction resources and materials are utilized is key to keep projects moving.
Understanding the Bottlenecks
Whether the current crisis lasts a few months or longer, funding for rural connectivity urgently needs to be expedited and prioritized. Existing initiatives such as the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auctions are being advanced ahead of schedule for shovel-ready rural Fiber-to-the-Home projects. Currently scheduled for the end of 2020, a proposal being put forward by industry leaders suggests collapsing the timeline without changing the program’s structure, auction rules, or total funding available. Simply bring the auctions forward so rural operators can start delivering essential broadband services sooner.
Additional strategies include streamlining local approvals for wireline and wireless projects to cut administrative red tape and ensure bottlenecks don’t stand in the way of progress. Expedited or automated approvals of compliant applications should be targeted if officials do not respond within mandated timeframes. Partisan legislators have demonstrated the current climate’s ability to remove bureaucracy; let’s not squander this window of opportunity.
Permitting approvals continue to be a challenge at the best of times. By leveraging digital tools and build documentation, project administrators can improve the transition into construction the moment permitting applications are received — getting projects moving without delay.
The Physical Barriers
Physical delivery still remains a risk and challenge for the industry. However, telecommunications construction is one of the few activities that can continue with the right systems and safety protocols.
The case for continuity of fiber build-out, particularly in rural areas, is strong. By building networks today, economic benefits are immediate, and sustained in the long term by having essential infrastructure in place for communities to access remote living, working, and learning.
In harnessing the power of a digital construction methodology, telecommunications and utility owners are in a better position to keep teams safe and moving.
A digital construction approach can help enable remote deployment of fiber networks across a variety of metropolitan and rural communities in several ways.
1. Eliminate physical deliverables and person-to-person interactions
By removing construction prints and the associated manual handoffs, field teams are equipped with everything they need to deliver construction tasks autonomously. Digital tasks specify exactly what needs to be delivered on geospatial maps, optimizing quality and minimizing rework.
2. Digital construction data and As-Built requirements
By bringing forward As-Built and downstream system and data requirements, digital platforms remove guesswork in the field and ensure teams capture consistent and complete geospatial data that is required to streamline customer connections and handover to network operations.
3. Manage construction and quality assurance remotely
Digital technology removes the physical necessity for project and construction leaders to interact and supervise field teams directly, while improving delivery speed and quality. By utilizing real-time geospatial data from the field, project managers and administrators dynamically schedule work, track progress visibility, and make informed decisions on the build remotely, without being in the office or out in the field.
4. Continuously optimize throughout delivery
When plans change, as they inevitably do on multi-year deployments, response time is critical. A digital approach enables network owners to affect changing priorities in minutes as opposed to weeks.
Universal connectivity is a fundamental utility. The business case for ramping-up network deployment has therefore never been more compelling for underserved communities, Government bodies, and the industry tasked with deploying these critical services.
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Telecommunications infrastructure takes time, money, and significant resources, to deploy. Given the challenges all communities are dealing with in these uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to embrace every efficiency available and to collectively focus on delivering market-ready projects that edge us all closer to a connected future.
Logistics and Supply Co-ops Beef Up Equipment Stock for COVID-19 Impacts Cooperative.com. April 6, 2020. By Derrill Holly. https://www.cooperative.com/news/pages/logistics-and-supply-co-ops-beef-up-equipment-stock-for-covid-19-impacts.aspx