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GIS FOR TELECOMMUNICATIONS

Issue Date: January 2007


AbstractThe telecommunications industry is on the verge of a GIS revolution. Using a central corporate database, a GIS can now serve customized data to sales, operations, engineering, customer service, and even the customers themselves. What makes this possible is the ability of a GIS to reach into a database and extract spatial information targeted to meet a users specific needs. This paper focuses on the use of GISs in the network planning and design aspect of the telecommunications industry. In particular, the paper highlights the potential applications of GIS in outside plant operations and the use of spatialized databases to improve workflow. Key Wordsgeographic information systems, GIS, outside plant, spatial database, telecommunications

INTRODUCTION

ver the past 30 years, geographic information systems (GISs) have evolved from vector-based, computer-aided mapping tools to fully integrated spatial solutions platforms. The GIS has become a jack-of-alltrades with capabilities ranging from interactive Web-based mapping services to threedimensional desktop modeling and analysis. The mapping service buzz words these days are Google Earth, Yahoo! maps, and Microsoft Virtual Earth [1]. These online mapping applications have changed the way we live and work with maps by providing new sources for research and data gathering through access to high-resolution aerial imagery and point-ofinterest data, combined with old-fashioned address locators. The fascination with these flashy applications has left us with a reinvigorated interest in discovering what else a GIS can do for us. The GIS has long been embraced by sciences and industries as diverse as demographics, medicine, utilities, agriculture, urban planning, biology, advertising, and transportation. The utilities industry, in particular, was an early adopter of GISs in the form of automated mapping/facilities management (AM/FM) applications [2]. But where does telecommunications fit into all of this? The wireless industry quickly embraced GISs as radio propagation modeling tools, allowing network engineers to rapidly estimate coverage

characteristics before a network was launched. These tools have also enabled engineers to plan and optimize changes to existing deployments, letting them view in real time the theoretical results of potential changes. Most of the early network propagation tools were designed around a GIS platform, linking GIS and network planning, sometimes without the users knowing that a GIS was involved or what it was. [3] However, adoption of GISs by the telecommunications industry as a whole is still incomplete. We are realizing the benefits of geospatial data analysis, but integration could be progressing faster.

WHAT IS A GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION SYSTEM?

Paul A. Lukas
palukas@bechtel.com

GIS is commonly perceived as a single technology, usually a software application, used to create and display cartographic information. In practice, however, a GIS consists of five components: software, data, procedures, hardware, and people. These five components work together to capture, store, retrieve, analyze, and display geographically referenced information. While computer-aided design (CAD) and mapping applications can display spatial information, a GIS has the added capability to analyze spatial data through attribute and location analysis or spatial modeling. Adding a relational database further enhances the capability of a GIS to solve complicated spatial problems. [4]

2007 Bechtel Corporation. All rights reserved.

ABBREVIATIONS, ACRONYMS, AND TERMS AM CAD DEM FDA FDH FM GIS GPS LC LU NID SDSFIE automatic mapping computer-aided design digital elevation model fiber distribution area fiber distribution hub facilities management geographic information system global positioning system land clutter land use network interface drop Spatial Data Standard for Facilities, Infrastructure, and the Environment structured query language

design-phase errors on cost and schedule during the network deployment phase. Rule-based features found in a GIS can also offer network designers the ability to produce better products, optimized for cost, shortest routing distances, or other user-defined metrics. The skill level and design time involved in handproducing comparable designs would be significantly higher.

GIS FOR WIRELESS

A GIS is ideally suited for network planning and development.

SQL

In the telecommunications world, a GIS is ideally suited for network planning and development. The ability to layer information onto the earths surface, complete with attribute data, allows engineers the unique ability to model and assess a network from the office. This saves valuable time and reduces the number of trips, if any, that the engineer must make to the field. Furthermore, the powerful automation capabilities offered by a GIS increase the speed and accuracy of the network design process and can help reduce, and even eliminate, the downstream impacts of

he GIS is already an essential tool in the wireless industry. Most wireless network engineers are familiar with the GIS as the backbone of many wireless design tools already in use. By incorporating digital elevation models (DEMs), land clutter (LC) data, and building elevation models, wireless engineers are able to assess radio coverage before the network is built, identify areas that require enhanced capacity or coverage, and plan for trends in network and application performance. However, a GIS can be used even before engineers set pen to paper. For marketing efforts, population data can be added to enable network traffic and resource utilization calculations. Aggregating block-level population data into rough coverage rings yields statistics on expected network complexity and required capital expenditures before network design even begins. Such numbers can be extremely effective when used in business development proposals because they originate from real-world models such as the example shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. LU/LC Data Created with the Assistance of Infrared Satellite Imagery

A GIS can further be used in business development efforts at both the strategic and operational scales to determine where coverage expansion should be directed and how the ensuing network should be deployed. Demographic data can be leveraged to identify population centers (as, for example, shown in Figure 2) and areas of high income. A demographic approach removes the need for strategic planners to throw darts at the map. Income estimates further allow engineers to target geographic areas with high disposable income that will be most likely to subscribe to new services. The benefits of this approach are obvious and are further validated by its increasing use in diverse business lines. Simply by picking up a business atlas or doing Internet research, planners can identify underserved markets and provide opportunities for revenue generation. Using a GIS allows the engineer to add existing and competitive coverage to the map to improve the context of the data provided.

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For example, high speed wireless Internet access can be targeted to neighborhoods with a population that is inclined to adopt new technology. Deploying such services in areas less likely to subscribe wastes resources and slows deployment to areas more likely to desire the service. Overlaying population, income, educational level, and age datasets enables areas to be identified where residents have greater disposable income and are culturally predisposed to purchase wireless services. Adding propensity indexes further allows the engineer to zero in on specific target communities. Post-deployment operation can benefit from a GIS as well. After the network is designed and built, the design can be viewed in the GIS for operational tuning. By creating a detailed map of a service area, including antenna locations and azimuths, and overlaying the propagation models created in the design phase, engineers have a powerful tool for understanding baseline operations. Drive test data can be loaded into the map to identify areas of real-world service

degradation. By linking base station information extracted from the drive test data to actual antenna configurations, engineers can easily identify and correct poor antenna tuning. What if scenarios can be run repeatedly until a design flaw has been corrected satisfactorily. Adding base station metrics to the drive test map further helps to identify tuning irregularities. Beyond allowing location information to be viewed on a map, a GIS is capable of running structured query language (SQL) queries on data attributesboth geographic and tabular. Augmenting antenna data with base station identification information enables the engineer to identify drive test results that lie outside minimum performance requirements. The resulting subset of drive test results may then be queried against the tower database to identify specific antennas responsible for the poor signal performance. This information, viewed on a map, allows the engineer to assess if the antenna is poorly tuned or if a neighboring antenna is not performing as intended. Thus, the engineer can

A detailed map of a service area is a powerful tool that allows the engineer to focus on solving the actual problem, rather than spending time on trial-and-error solutions that may not address the core issue.

Figure 2. Population Density Map

January 2007 Volume 5, Number 1

focus on solving the actual problem, rather than spending time on trial-and-error solutions that may not address the core issue. [5]

GIS FOR OUTSIDE PLANT

T
The renewed attention to outside plant in the telecommunications industry coincides well with the recent GIS developments.

he role for the GIS in infrastructure management was pioneered by the gas, electricity, and water utility industries. A GIS is ideally suited for outside plant design and management for telecommunications as well. While outside plant was once relegated to a small, specialized community within the telecommunications world, recent industry changes have brought a renewed focus to this area. The growth of the Internet, highdefinition television, video-on-demand, and other interactive multimedia services has caused end-user demands for bandwidth to skyrocket. Carriers have addressed this requirement by deploying new outside plant networks, primarily using high-capacity, fiber-optic cable. Deploying new networks often requires revisiting infrastructures placed decades ago; portions of the network could even be more than a century old. [6] Engineering designs for this infrastructure are labor intensive due to the physical field survey,

address reconciliation, network dimensioning, and quantity takeoff tasks. Furthermore, incorporating the volume of legacy data to produce an effective network design may introduce a high occurrence of defects. Manually implementing the network design and review process makes it more difficult to discover defects. Correcting these defects often results in a complete design rework, resulting in cost and design cycle time overruns. Because the network design represents an initial stage in the design cycle, it exerts a considerable impact on downstream items. Network designers previously relied on CAD systems to support the design efforts; however, GIS advances have positioned them to provide significantly enhanced functionality for designing and engineering outside plant systems. The renewed attention to outside plant in the telecommunications industry coincides well with the recent GIS developments. A GIS offers a unique capability over standard CAD applications by allowing disparate data layers to be assessed independently of their physical data attributes. Information such as length, depth underground, number of cables, or terminal size can be stored as part of the feature information (see example in Figure 3). Land-base information such as plat maps can be viewed as individual raster (pixel) files or vector datasets. Engineers can design network routes directly in the GIS, registering the data directly over the plat maps, and then export the information to a CAD drawing if necessary. Existing utilities, right-ofway data, and customer information may also be viewed directly in the GIS during the design process. The ability to view multiple sources of information at once while designing the network minimizes the number of field redlines and revisions necessary before final approval. [7] Ideally, the GIS becomes a central data management application that combines information from multiple sources. Client information from proprietary legacy databases can be imported along with land-base information from government sources and then be viewed within a single application. The result is a map that can be printed and taken to the field as a single reference source. Equipping field crews with tablet or laptop computers connected to global positioning system (GPS) receivers makes the process even more efficient. Field crews are able to view pertinent information on site, make corrections to attribute data, identify data irregularities, and relocate incorrectly

Figure 3. Example of Attribute Data that May Be Stored for a Fiber-Optics Terminal

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Figure 4. Example of Error-Checking for a Fiber-Optics Terminal Dataset

two-thirds (not including field checking and redlines resulting from errors beyond the scope of the GIS application). For this particular project, a custom GIS application was developed that allowed the engineer to create customer records, service areas, wiring groups, and cable runs; place terminals; and locate network interface drops (NIDs). The benefits of automating the process included creating a tabular geospatial database that stored not only the individual geographic features, but relevant attribute data as well. Included in the attribute data was feature identification information that was used to create a network topology. [8] The information in the database could then be incorporated directly into automated design summaries (see example in Figure 6) that were used for error checking, creating a bill of materials, and generating a variety of other reports. After the physical cable design was completed, the underlying network topology was used to determine the networks service dimensioning. From the fiber distribution hub (FDH) to the NID, and based on regional requirements, every strand of cable was routed at the click of a button. Aside from providing the ability to leverage network topology, the attribute data from each feature was used to automatically create material quantity takeoffs. These two examples show how a GIS can be used to cut design time and allow the engineer to focus on the actual network design, rather than spend time creating reports. The speed with which reports can be generated also

In a recent project where a GIS was used only as the design tool, the initial network design time was reduced by two-thirds.

Figure 5. Raster Plot Map Overlaid with Digital Design Data

positioned infrastructure or add previously unknown infrastructure with consistent precision that may be relied upon in the office with confidence. Figure 4 provides an illustration of this error-checking capability. Data from field crews can be downloaded to the infrastructure database in the office and made available to the design engineers. Incorrect data can be updated and new features added without passing information back and forth multiple times, thereby reducing the number of trips to the field to verify or re-verify data. From this starting point, design engineers may begin their work with confidence that what they see on their screens (see example in Figure 5) is an accurate model of the real world. The point that accurate data is used at the outset of the design process cannot be emphasized enough. The time saved by not having to revise redlines, often multiple times, results in a more efficient design process. Automating the design process reduces design turnaround time even further. In a recent project where a GIS was used only as the design tool, the initial network design time was reduced by

Figure 6. Automated Design Summary

January 2007 Volume 5, Number 1

contributes to the ability of the engineer to experiment with what if scenarios and compare several different designs quickly and without major rework. GIS software packages require experienced users. Employing a GIS out of the box may require adding a cadre of GIS professionals to the project team to train users, provide support, and administer the software package. Many GIS applications, however, allow for in-house customization. Customized applications based on macros or basic programming can significantly reduce the learning curve required by engineers to use the software, as well as decrease dependence on a large staff of GIS analysts. A single GIS professional can create customized menu bars, tool buttons, and databases packaged within a clean and simple-to-use GIS add-on application. Well-thought-out training sessions can further ease the transition to a new toolset. The cost of creating a customized application should not be a major stumbling block to implementing a GIS-based infrastructure management and design system. Currently, several commercial off-the-shelf GIS-based design tools are available for wireless and outside plant designs. As demand for new outside plant networks coincides with a shortage of trained and available skilled personnel in this area, the GIS can be leveraged by network operators and engineering firms to fill that talent gap. Automated specialized GISs can allow users with lower skill sets and associated costs to assist the experienced engineers already proficient in outside plant design. At the same time, the computer-savvy engineer often finds that using a GIS as an aid significantly reduces the learning curve for outside plant design.

Latitude and longitude coordinates can be stored in a central enterprise database side by side with infrastructure information, materials lists, previous designs, and imported client data. All of this content can then be layered together within the GIS to create a model of the telecommunications infrastructure in question. The capabilities for SQL queries, compounded with geospatial functions, allow users to generate complex relational database solutions to geospatial questions. [9] A shared corporate database releases engineers from the hunt for data (Where is that list of towers we built last year? Can we co-locate on them?). More often than not, the information is forgotten in someones desk drawer. Working, instead, in a database environment, engineers can access past projects and overlay that information with current project information. Network topology, infrastructure, land base records, and other data are stored together on a single database available to all users and all systems. Database structures such as the Spatial Data Standard for Facilities, Infrastructure, and the Environment (SDSFIE) are geared to the lowest common denominator. Drawings created in mapenabled CAD applications can be stored in the database to be accessed by the GIS. Aerial site photos stored in the database can be overlaid with existing utilities, past projects, and current construction to create a complete picture of the current situation. In this age of instant data gratification, the ability to gain immediate access to all necessary information from one source to be used in one application simplifies the implementation process.

The ability to visually assess the locations of objects on the Earths surface, rather then trying to interpret numbers on spreadsheets, is a key element leading to the use of a GIS.

CONCLUSIONS

THE SPATIAL DATABASE

eyond the many uses of a GIS in telecommunications applications, the greatest power of a GIS lies in its ability to spatialize and integrate databases. The basic data element of a GIS is a data table. Geographic features and attribute data alike are stored in flat tables similar to most existing database formats. It is widely accepted that 80 percent of all data has a geographic component. The ability to visually assess the locations of objects on the Earths surface, rather then trying to interpret numbers on spreadsheets, is a key element leading to the use of a GIS in the first place.

hile GISs have been used to great success in the wireless industry, their full potential has not yet been reached in the telecommunications industry as a whole. The major GIS vendors are touting telecommunications applications and plug-ins for wireless and outside plant design and maintenance. At the same time, major telecommunications service providers with custom-built legacy databases are being locked into dealing with specific contractors that are familiar with the software. The contractors dealing with these legacy databases, which lack the flexibility to integrate and analyze multiple data sources, are forced to jump through hoops to work with these systems and to reinvent the wheel project after project. In the process, they

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stand the risk of stagnating on the integration of GISs into their work and becoming increasingly less competitive. Instead, they need to push not only themselves to look to the future, but their clients as well.

BIOGRAPHY
Paul Lukas joined Bechtel Telecommunications in 2004 and during his first year created a customized fiber-optic network design tool that fused outside plant design principles with the geospatial data management capabilities of a GIS. He has been the GIS manager for Bechtel Federal Telecoms since 2005, where he evaluates, implements, and manages geospatial solutions. Paul also supports the Strategic Infrastructure Group and manages its geospatial data; he is currently developing a geospatial infrastructure database and customized GIS application to expand the group's access to geospatial information and solutions. Additional responsibilities have included general cartographic support, geospatial analysis for infrastructure and telecommunications networks, and proposal support. Before joining Bechtel, Paul worked for Wireless Facilities, Inc., where he provided dedicated geospatial support services for AT&T Wireless and assisted in creating a GIS-based wireless network optimization tool. Paul began his studies in GIS at the Virginia Polytechnic University and earned a BS in Technical Management from DeVry University. He is a member of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA).

TRADEMARKS Google Earth is a trademark of Google Inc. Yahoo! is a registered trademark of Yahoo! Inc. Microsoft is a registered trademark and Virtual Earth is a trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and other countries.

REFERENCES
[1] R. Paul, Microsoft Launches Virtual Earth 3D to try to take on Google (http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/ 10224.html). S. Smith, AM/FM + GIS + Web, GISVision magazine, December 1999. S. DuPlessis, Geoinformation: A Singular Advantage in a Cellular Age (http://www.geoplace.com/ge/ 2000/0500/0500gf.asp). K.C. Clarke, Analytical and Computer Cartography, Prentice Hall, 1995. B. Schweber, With the Right Tools, You Can Score Big in the RF Field of Dreams, EDN magazine, July 6, 2000. D. McCullough, Four Options to Extend Your Broadband Service Revenues, OSP magazine, October 2005. L. Godin, GIS in Telecommunications, ESRI Press, 2001. Personal interview with Bechtel network engineer, October 2006. S. Rich, A. Das, and C. Kroot, Spatial Data Management in an Enterprise GIS (http://gis.esri.com/library/userconf/proc01/ professional/papers/pap742/p742.htm).

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January 2007 Volume 5, Number 1

Bechtel Telecommunications Technical Journal