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How to leverage GIS for telecommunication network construction

The COVID-19 pandemic has put our connected world to the test. Commerce, education, health and many other industries all pivoted to a new working paradigm. One that includes working virtually. And while it’s true that many people were able to keep a communication lifeline through their high-speed Internet connections, many parts of the country were not as lucky. Many rural communities were alienated during the pandemic because bandwidth access was too low or non-existent. The spotlight on this digital divide is apparent and now governments and policy makers are activating programs to help address this gap. That means operators and build partners are rushing to build out communication networks as quickly as they can. The accelerated pace of network construction means operators and build partners need to work faster, harder, smarter—and do so together. In this article, we’ll dive into the world of GIS to see how a spatially enabled ecosystem of tools can help project stakeholders streamline the construction process to help bridge the digital divide.

It was the litmus test. COVID-19. Can we work from home? Can we learn from home? You are probably tired of hearing it, but the COVID-19 pandemic has forever shaped how we operate in a modern society. The way of working, learning and getting health advice can be done in person and, yes, virtually as well. Sprinkle in the exponential advancement of technology, add a dash of on demand personal entertainment and you now have a recipe for uninterrupted, meaty bandwidth access everywhere and anywhere, all the time. 

So, what does this mean for the industry?

Well because of the spotlight on connectivity, or lack thereof, all levels of government and policy makers are pushing for the expansion of communication infrastructure to support the demands of the future in both urban and rural settings. Especially for those in unserved/underserved areas of the country. The Canadian federal government has launched an initiative to deploy high-speed Internet for all of Canada.

"We are committed to connecting 98% of Canadians to high-speed Internet by 2026 and all Canadians by 2030."
- From: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada

50/10Mbps minimum for all Canadians by 2030! Exciting and ambitious. And so, the race begins!

Operators, municipalities and build partners are clamoring to secure funding to help deploy these networks. However, as a build partner or operator, you know very well that constructing these networks is not a simple task. There are many moving parts to the construction of wireline and wireless communication networks. There are many project stakeholders involved. Real-time project status updates are constantly needed. Field mobility workflows must operate seamlessly during project execution. The network must be inspected to ensure deployment quality. Having all these items covered by a single system or technology stack is easier said than done, but there are tools out there to help address these needs. Spatial tools. GIS tools. And these GIS tools all live and participate in a single, cloud-based ecosystem that is accessible to all project stakeholders who need access. Too good to be true? Believe it! It’s true. Let us dive in to take a closer look...

Documentation Collaboration

Municipal government. Provincial government. Federal government. Authoritative ministry. Local utility. Operator. Build partner. Engineering firm. Subcontractor. Did I miss anyone?

Network design packages. Equipment installation packages. Project overview maps. Construction permits. Site access information. Underground locates. Right-of-way boundaries. Building footprints. Is there more?

I’m sure you get it, but I think it’s worth repeating: There are MANY project stakeholders and there are MANY project artifacts that need to come together to support the construction phase of a telecommunication network build. So how can we manage this data as it relates to project and location and share this data easily with all project stakeholders, internally and externally?

Say hello to ArcGIS Online. The ArcGIS Online SaaS environment is an ideal way to support distributed collaboration of spatially enabled information products for telecommunication network construction activities. All the project artifacts previously mentioned can be pulled together and aligned geographically inside the ArcGIS Online SaaS environment. This environment enables the creation of web maps and apps along with attachments to relevant information that can be shared with the appropriate subcontractor, build partner, or stakeholder that needs access to said items. The ArcGIS Online environment is a perfect place for distributed collaboration.

An image showing multiple documents and files coming together into a single, larger file image representing a single document and file repository.

Moreover, ArcGIS Online is not a place for only ArcGIS related data, but many other files and project artifacts can live on ArcGIS Online to support the rollout of a network build! Perhaps you use AutoCAD to design the network. That is ok! Upload that design file to ArcGIS Online and link it to a project location polygon so that the location and design lives in one place, can be accessed from one system, and easily shared with the project teams! I would be remiss to say that we cannot do network engineering using the ArcGIS technology stack, of course we can. Check out our partner ecosystem! But hey, if you use something else, that is ok too. Let’s bring this data into the ArcGIS Online system because we need to use distributed collaboration to support all stakeholders in the telecommunication network construction process.

Project Status Reporting

You are well on your way to building out a telecommunication network. ArcGIS Online is a great tool for cloud-based access to network design information and work locations. But how is it coming along? How many kilometers of aerial/underground have you installed? What is the status of the project? What about percent complete? Are you keeping an eye on permit statuses related to your construction project? Some of these metrics can get lost in the shuffle. Wouldn't it be nice to have a dashboard view of all these relevant metrics, ideally, inside of the same SaaS environment that you are using for documentation collaboration?


An image showing telecommunication network construction project metrics including Construction Project Status, Route Kilometers of Plant Installed, Permit Status, and Inspection Status.

Well guess what? It is possible! ArcGIS Dashboards is a perfect tool to highlight such metrics. And ArcGIS Dashboards provides project status visibility by referencing real-time work items that are managed during the construction process inside of the same ArcGIS Online SaaS environment! There is no need to go use "something else" to get this view. ArcGIS Dashboards can reference all project artifacts directly so that when there is a change to the attributes of these information products, the metrics inside of ArcGIS Dashboards is updated instantly, providing a real-time view! More good news: These dashboards can be accessed by all project stakeholders where applicable, anywhere and anytime on any device, to gain visibility on the metrics that are important to those groups.

Field Mobility and Markup

Documentation collaboration is important. Project status updates? Yes, important too. What makes these items even more important is the need to have them readily available in the field, in an online or offline mode. After all, network construction happens in the field, not the office. And if you are building networks in parts of the country that is unserved or underserved, access to digital documents cannot be dependent on network connectivity. You are in the process of building the network itself after all. It’s not online yet! So, you need access to all the project artifacts related to the build regardless of where you are. You need to be able to update attributes about the project as it progresses over time. You need to communicate design changes and as-builts back to the operator using redlines. Paper is good, but I have this $1000 mobile phone in my pocket. Can I not use this to do all these things? Yes, yes you can.

The ArcGIS ecosystem of native mobile applications allows users to bring productivity to the field regardless of their connectivity, online or offline! Two good ArcGIS applications for field mobility and markup workflows are the ArcGIS Companion app and the ArcGIS Field Maps app.

The ArcGIS Companion app allows users to access all the relevant project documents that have been curated and shared by project stakeholders using ArcGIS Online. You can now do away with some of those paper documents. Simply open the ArcGIS Companion app, navigate to the group/folder content for the construction project of interest and view all the relevant artifacts needed to help you build the network.

As you are constructing the network you are most likely going to have redlines. You want to be able to see the original design and markup the changes. Again, paper is good, but what if you could do it digitally using your phone and/or tablet? ArcGIS Field Maps is the tool that allows build partners to document changes and redlines using mobile native design tools. The paper is not needed and the updates made to the maps are instant, allowing the operator to see, in real-time, the changes that are happening as network is constructed. Heck, you can even markup .pdf documents of AutoCAD drawings using digital pencils if you need to!

Project documentation, redlines for design changes, on any device, anywhere, anytime, regardless of network connectivity, leveraging the very same, cloud-based environment...the ArcGIS Online ecosystem of mobile applications has you covered!

An image showing a field construction manager in the field using a tablet to view network information.

Verification Surveys

As an operator, you have many build partners and subcontractors executing on projects all over your serving territory. Part of the plan, design, construction, as-built process is the validation of the construction efforts to ensure build quality and worker safety. Again, you will need access to project documentation in the office and in the field so that you can look to execute an inspection against the build that is in progress. Paper is great but executing an inspection using a device is...well, it’s better, wouldn't you say? So how can we solve this one?

ArcGIS Survey123 is the perfect solution to help the operator and the build partner manage QA workflows in the office and in the field. You can build custom inspections related to the type of network you are building. You can document all aspects of the inspection with form controls, pictures, attachments, and even LiDAR scans if your device has this capability! Yes, you read that correctly. You can scan field objects with LiDAR and bring these objects into the ArcGIS Online environment as a spatially referenced location of the asset(s) you're inspecting! This is perfect for those underground installations. Now, field construction managers can use a mobile friendly app to document all aspects of a network build inspection where the results of these inspections live in the exact same cloud-based ecosystem as all the project documents and artifacts that are accessed by field mobility workflows, project status workflows, and project stakeholder collaboration workflows! ArcGIS Online becomes a one-stop-shop to manage many of the construction related activities, including network build inspections!

An image showing a field construction manager in the field using a laptop and phone to execute a field inspection for a network build.

Which leads us to the end of this post. I don’t want to say, "one ecosystem to rule them all", but many of these network construction activities mentioned can be supported by a single, spatial management system that is accessible across stakeholders in a cloud-based environment: ArcGIS Online. A quick recap:

  • ArcGIS Online for a documentation repository storing all project artifacts related to specific projects and project work locations.
  • ArcGIS Dashboards for referencing project metrics and statuses. As progress is made, network details are updated in ArcGIS Online and these notes are reflected in ArcGIS Dashboards.
  • ArcGIS Field Maps for referencing project maps, documents, and making markups, changes, and redlines.
  • ArcGIS Survey123 for supporting QA workflows where network installation details can be inspected.

All these tools work together in a single, cloud-based ecosystem that is accessible to all project stakeholders who need access. No need to jump from one system to another. Mobile ready, cloud-based access to data and tools that can help with construction efforts across multiple stakeholders, both internally and externally.

If you want to see how ArcGIS can help with network construction in more detail, I encourage you to check out the below StoryMap. Hopefully, it gives you some ideas of how location and GIS can support the network rollout process. So, before I let you go, remember, there are new ways of working. Digital automation can help with construction efforts and the ArcGIS system of products might just be the one-stop-shop needed to help streamline these activities in your construction efforts. Faster builds equal faster time to market. Oh, and all of Canada is waiting, know, no pressure!

ArcGIS and Telecommunication Network Construction

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Sergio Palladini is the Industry Manager for Telecommunications at Esri Canada. He is focused on illustrating the importance of geospatial technology as it applies to the telecommunications industry. Sergio has significant experience in helping telecommunication operators around the world see the value of location intelligence and spatial analytics for enhanced decision support across their enterprise. He holds an undergraduate degree from Queen's University and a master's degree in Geographic Information Systems from the University of Calgary.

Profile Photo of Sergio Palladini