As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring connectivity for all has swiftly risen up the agenda for the telecom industry. The availability of the services we now rely on to live and work have become more important than ever. However, with global 5G adoption expected to almost triple in 2021, it’s clear that the distribution of telecom networks will need to grow in line with this projected demand. As working from home has quickly become the norm for most sectors and many isolated rural communities often depend on connectivity for their basic needs, the telecom industry rightly sits at the heart of any nation’s critical national infrastructure.
In fact, in early April 2021, the Biden administration pledged $100 billion to improve broadband infrastructure across the nation, with a goal of providing high-speed broadband connectivity for all Americans by 2029. Currently, it is estimated that over a third of Americans living in rural areas lack access to a quality standard of broadband. However, a major challenge that organizations continue to face is the lack of open, decentralized data on existing telecom infrastructure to help this transition take place smoothly.
At the same time, the proliferation of IoT applications across the industry is showing no signs of slowing down, presenting a huge opportunity for business growth. According to GSMA, the global IoT market will be worth $900 billion in revenue by 2025 – an almost threefold increase on 2019.
As organizations grapple with increasingly disparate data sources and growing volumes of data to analyze, opening up this information to senior technical decision-makers in field and operational teams can provide crucial insight and streamline broadband roll-out. However, not making a conscious effort to integrate this data into fiber roll-out plans also runs the risk of leaving this potential goldmine of business growth untapped.
Information silos are hampering progress
For high-speed broadband to effectively reach rural or small-town locations, multiple parties likely must play a role. In this increasingly digitalized industry, a diverse market of startup providers, WISPs, and organizations such as transport, government, and commercial operators willing to lease out bandwidth will join with larger service providers to reach underserved areas that otherwise may not be commercially viable for major infrastructure investment.
Many providers are failing to capitalize on the wealth of data that is now available to them and this is hampering new deployments or smarter use of existing infrastructure to achieve nationwide coverage.
As networks continue to grow and become more complex, having an accurate, live view of existing assets will also be increasingly vital to planning efficient new infrastructure investment. For example, an accurate geospatial view of gaps in network capacity in underserved areas can help maximize coverage and market reach with minimal new cable or antennas.
Yet geospatial data on existing networks is often nonexistent or held in labor-intensive formats that make it inaccessible and difficult to integrate with other datasets such as local infrastructure maps or local meteorological or ecological hazard data. Such integration is essential to identify the most low-risk and cost-effective pathways for new networks to reach new markets. For example, a large university in the western U.S. is using advanced geospatial data to predict extra capacity and plan the most cost-effective pathways to coverage across its satellite campuses.
Major silos exist between workflows such as maintenance and construction and between datasets such as records of defects or as-builts. This is particularly damaging to smaller operators who may not have the resources or budget to integrate external data on nearby hazards or opportunities with internal processes and workflows. Similarly, potentially crucial data on risks or opportunities from the nearby natural and built environment, such as trees that could obstruct signals or tall buildings that could host 5G antennas, could be missed entirely and cause unnecessary, lengthy delays to the construction process.
As the industry continues to integrate next-generation networks like 5G, implementing processes and technology that encourage data sharing will be key to future-proofing operations and collaboration within and between teams. In the short and long term, operators will need to prioritize open, decentralized access to data to accelerate deployments and foster a healthy, competitive culture across the industry.
Streamlining deployment with open data
To mitigate these risks and facilitate more agile broadband infrastructure planning, organizations must break down internal silos by encouraging efficient and joined-up data sharing. In particular, smaller network operators must make their internal geospatial network data accessible to all departments so they can seamlessly incorporate external data such as street maps or satellite data into all their survey, construction, and maintenance processes. Geospatial network data forms a “digital thread” that connects all external data to a specific location in the network and thus reveals the subtle interdependencies between networks and their local environment.
Such an ability has enabled smaller providers to open their internal data so that disparate departments and divisions can seamlessly incorporate relevant external data into all processes. For example, IBM Weather Group’s LIDAR and satellite data on vegetation cover could be overlaid onto geospatial network data to help companies plan new 5G antennas to minimize signal obstruction from nearby vegetation. By integrating external data with internal network information, new and existing market players can see opportunities for efficient deployment of broadband into new geographies and accelerate the process of ensuring connectivity for all Americans.
Uncovering dark fiber
This circular flow of data between departments demonstrates how decentralized, open data can create a decentralized, open market. Open-source, geospatial data of this kind can enable smaller and bigger telecom players to maximize the reach of high-speed broadband, addressing the growing digital divide in nationwide connectivity.
Many organizations are sitting on goldmines of “dark fiber” – unused network capacity – which could be sold to companies or leased to nearby communities to increase coverage. When the university referenced earlier audited and updated their network asset records, they uncovered over 200 “dark” broadband fibers, which helped streamline their network and identify extra capacity. The discovery of unused broadband capacity and pathways to coverage for other areas not only reduces waste but also allows organizations to share unused bandwidth with others to maximize high-speed broadband coverage and increase revenue potential. In this way, organizations can improve the efficiency of their networks, extract maximum coverage from minimal resources, and contribute to wider national coverage. North America already leads the world in the dark fiber market and has an opportunity to leverage this abundance to accelerate nationwide 5G coverage without wasteful new infrastructure spending.
Discovering unused broadband capacity in this way helps to increase efficiency for large and small operators alike by allowing them to extract maximum coverage from minimal resources and grow revenue potential in the process. Regardless of organization size, scalability and flexibility will be vital considerations when it comes to adapting to a dynamic and increasingly decentralized market.
In the coming years, organizations will need to take a different approach to the collection, analysis, and distribution of data within teams and across teams and divisions if they are to successfully reach underserved communities and achieve 100% high-speed broadband coverage by the end of the decade as promised. This should involve a shift in mindset when it comes to their handling and sharing of data, transitioning to an open, collaborative approach that improves their business and the industry as a whole.
Wade Anderson is vice president of OSPInsight at IQGeo.