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Underground Asset Management – Enriching Data and the Importance of GIS for Accurate Fiber Buildout – Part 1

30 September 2022
Mike Dorland

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The management of assets in telecoms, those both overground and underground, is a critical function that can impact the likely success of tasks ranging from ensuring network resilience to achieving optimal fiber buildout, and many others beyond. But what steps are required by operators striving to meet the challenge of managing their assets effectively? That’s a question we’ll consider (and  provide solutions for!) in this two-part blog.

In the first blog of this two-part series, let’s look at the background. Underground asset management is rapidly growing in both importance and complexity, but why is that the case now? What’s driving the issue to the fore? In the second part of the series, we’ll look at why enriching data and GPS are important components of the answer for the fiber buildout challenge.

In the today’s telecoms market, with hybrid networks and new technologies emerging at pace, managing network assets is understandably fast becoming more complicated. And make no mistake, the network is evolving rapidly, aggressively driving the challenge. Examples of this abound:

  • The global Passive Optical Network (PON) market is expected to grow incrementally to a value $25.89 billion between 2022-2026, gaining over 30% market share. To meet this demand, operators will need to build high-capacity networks that function outside their present standard ranges.
  • In Europe, coverage of buildings with fiber connections to the network reached 50% of households last year, with considerably more build-out required to meet targets.
  • Data from the Spanish regulator (CNMC) indicates the total number of domestic FTTH lines has now reached 13.2 million, a +90,831 increase versus the previous month. The pace of change is continual and shows no signs of abating any time soon.

Underlining the importance of managing these assets, in the UK, the government is leading the creation of a National Underground Asset Register, to track the 4 million kilometers of underground pipes, fiber, cables, power lines, and sewers that are constantly being upgraded, mended, and maintained.  Given that around 60,000 accidental strikes occur each year costing the UK economy up to £2.4bn this step is perhaps no surprise. And, given that fiber often travels along the same basic routes – following roads and more – then understanding where other such infrastructure can be found is clearly essential – a fact recognized by other countries that have developed similar registers. 

In light of the above and regardless of the speed and complexity of the changes the market is experiencing, operators still need to control everything from underground fiber to radio waves and much else besides as a single, interconnected ecosystem of components regardless of their location or function. 

Operators will need to know not only where their infrastructure is sited but also what it intersects with if they want to understand potential vulnerabilities in their network. They will also need to pinpoint locations to resolve failures and, to effectively plan network buildouts, geolocation data will be critical.

Once again, the root challenge is data

So how can operators get in position to meet the challenge described above? The starting point is, perhaps inevitably, taking control of all the available data. For many operators, this won’t be easy – particularly if, like many, they don’t already have a comprehensive source of asset-related data in a readily accessible format.

Those that don’t, or that fail to address the issue, will be met with a growing array of problems if they don’t take remedial action quickly. Examples of this abound. For instance, are they collecting real-time insights from all their network assets and if they are, is the related data readily accessible to those who need it (such as field workers, network planners, or contractors)? If this isn’t the case, the ensuing problems are obvious. 

And even if the required data is already being collected, if it’s then often siloed in legacy infrastructure and incompatible with (or, worse, simply unavailable to) other data needed for enrichment. Data that can’t be shared across realms is significantly devalued.

vc4 asset management

Underground asset data: the biggest challenge?

Underground asset data may present the biggest challenge of all. That’s because without an integrated and updated view of the literally millions of miles of out-of-view infrastructure, it’s impossible for an operator to achieve effective resilience against even basic threats like flooding, or to see how other utility infrastructure might impact the network, or to plan future buildout efficiently. 

With this (and more) in mind arguably the most pressing task for network operators today should be the creation of a universal, location-based view of their assets; a single map of infrastructure that enables not just immediately effective asset management but also forward thinking.

Building the map

The holistic view delivered by this map will, as noted earlier, require data from multiple sources to be combined to arrive at a real-time picture of the network. This view is composed of not just network data related to physical assets. Geospatial information will be equally critical so that asset data can be matched with location and context to identify for instance not just there is a problem and what it is, but where it can be found and how it can most efficiently be fixed. 

GIS data can improve communication and problem resolution, streamline management and decision making, identify the physical location of problems, and help to manage and respond to events, understand trends, and much more.

Plus, only with a such GIS-enriched data can operators move towards being able to site infrastructure away from threats, to quickly replace problematic elements in the network, to avoid single points of failure, and to contextualize operations, the latter for instance by revealing interdependencies in infrastructure that could lead to vulnerabilities. 

Next steps

So far, we’ve established why it’s critical that operators have a holistic view of their assets, and why that view needs to be contextualized to maximize its value. But how do they get there? There’s little point knowing what you need to if you can’t deliver it.  In part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss the three key considerations you should keep in mind when setting out to build your asset map, and three immediate benefits you’ll accrue by enriching your asset data with GIS.

For the operator, all these steps and many other related are the domain of the Network Inventory Management platform. One leading example is VC4-IMS, which tackles the challenge using a rigorous set process. It collects raw data from multiple endpoints in the network, normalizes, enriches, and then reconciles it – including GIS sources and any other accessible database. 

As a result, VC4-IMS delivers a critical, panoramic view all physical and logical resources in the network giving the operator a clear, unified understanding of live network assets, and their utilization and configuration at any given time. The platform can also be integrated into the network itself to perform auto-provisioning (service fulfilment) which facilitates building and rolling out services in the network.

To learn more about how VC4-IMS and GIS functionality perform in tandem, please download our new white paper.