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When Collaboration Trumps Engineering

May 1, 2019
Engineering Best Practices for 53 German Municipalities —  Germany was one of the world’s leaders in aggressively deploying high speed access via DSL in the late 1990’s. The initial commercial […]

Engineering Best Practices for 53 German Municipalities — 

Germany was one of the world’s leaders in aggressively deploying high speed access via DSL in the late 1990’s. The initial commercial offering by Deutsche Telekom showcased download speeds of 768kbits/second, a blazing speed for the times. Constant improvement of DSL product offerings increased download speeds in some areas up to 250Mbit/s (although this speed was available only in some metro areas over short distances).

Making a connection to a building.

Today, however, the need for streaming to multiple high-def televisions, the demand from smart phones, the projected increase due to the Internet of Things, and the insane growth of other data services is outpacing traditional DSL services. Additionally, in many rural areas, high-speed DSL services have never been available. Providing high-speed broadband access becomes a particularly sensitive subject when schools are not able to provide access for their students.

In order to provide better service to their constituents, and to avoid the long delays of the traditional carriers — which are frequently extremely slow to provision fiber — many local towns are banding together to build municipal networks. Just as in the United States, these networks can be controversial. Traditional carriers oppose them under the argument that governments shouldn’t be building businesses which compete with private companies. But the need for higher speeds is so strong that municipal networks are becoming increasingly popular despite complaints from traditional carriers. To overcome these objections, the municipalities building such networks must follow a strictly regulated process to assure they only deploy fiber in areas with low bandwidth supply. The actual threshold for high speed bandwidth, as defined by the EU Commission is 30 Mbit/s.

Cable ducts with fiber optic closure.

One such area intent upon improving digital access is situated in the south western part of Germany, surrounding the city of Heidelberg, in the state of Baden-Württemberg. In order to respond to the demand for better services, the Zweckverband (the association of Municipalities in this region) initiated a project to deploy a fiber-based network to provide high-speed broadband services. The area, known as Rhein-Neckar Kreis, is situated in the south western part of Germany, and consists of 53 individual municipalities in an area of approximately 400 square miles. The total number of buildings (households, schools, apartments, and businesses) which could potentially connect to this network is approximately 147,000.  Planning for this project began in 2015 with an estimated budget of 2.6M euros.

The contract was divided into 2 parts: Part 1 of the project was the planning and engineering phase while Part 2 was the actual construction work. Selection of the vendors was based on several criteria: the actual price offered, experience of the contractors, distance from the project area, and estimated time to finish the project. Part 1 of the contract was awarded to a team of 12 members from the engineering firm of seim & partner.

Cable mounting.

One of the major difficulties in designing dark fiber networks, is the vast amount of data required from disparate sources in multiple different formats.  Data needed for this project was acquired from the multiple municipalities: the Zweckverband organization itself, the incumbent carrier, Deutsche Telekom as well as the local cable company. A large amount of this data was not digitized and only available in paper, much of it unaudited. This required a great deal of manual work before it could be entered into the planning software. Additional data needed to be acquired from the local electric companies, water companies, and the Wasserverband (this is a government association which maintains sewers and drinking water pipes).

Step 1 of the actual network design required loading all of the disparate data into the software model and preparing a 3-dimensional plan so trenches could be dug without damaging the existing infrastructure. For this particular project, no special licenses were required, however each of the individual municipalities as well as the Zweckverband association needed to approve the plan, especially with respect to proposed locations for the street cabinets and similar network items. The planning software generated street level maps showing the proposed location of all visible equipment.  All of the design work was closely audited by the individual municipalities. Strict adherence to building codes, for streets, pavement, and private groups
was required.

Trench digging.

By far, the biggest challenge during the project was not the technical work. It was the time and effort to establish close cooperation with such a large customer base. Each of the 53 municipalities needed to approve the work in their towns. Establishing a close and productive partnership was a time-consuming process but absolutely critical in the ultimate success. Deliverables included detailed conduit plans, civil engineering plans, existing infrastructure plans showing maps of the trenches in 3D, documents and applications needed for the approval of street cabinet’s locations and maps of environmental conservation areas inside the project area, showing conflicts, if any.

The detailed planning was completed at the end of 2018, and actual construction began in early 2019. The completion of Phase 1 was not the end of the project for seim & partner, as it is also required to supervise the actual construction using its project software. This includes generating bills of materials, tracking daily build progress and creating detailed splice maps for the cable gangs to follow. During Phase 1 of the project, maximum signal loss for each fiber path was calculated. After construction, actual signal loss is tested, and the data automatically collected from the OTDR. These actual results are then compared by the software with the previously computed results and any signal loss above the tolerance level is flagged. Any construction changes needed during the actual build ("as-built") are collected and documented in the master database available to all other utilities.

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The end result? With the engineering and communication efforts of a truly collaborative team, nearly 547,000 people will then enjoy the benefits of a fiber-based network across the Heidelberg area.

About the Author

Kai Seim

Kai Seim is the Founder and Managing Partner of seim & partner, and is responsible for corporate development, customer management, and product development. seim & partner is based in Wiesbaden, Germany, and has been designing dark fiber networks for more than 12 years. For more information, please email [email protected] or visit