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How To Leverage GIS for Telecommunication Network Planning and Design

Network operators are always looking at the latest in network technology. They are on the leading edge of innovation as they adapt to an ever-changing market. Demands of consumers. Demands of governments. Demands of revenue generation. The demands of a connected future! Satisfying these demands is not "magic". No. This is done through the adoption of innovative technology! With this mindset baked into operators' DNA, one would think that the same principles of leading-edge technology adoption would be applied to internal systems just as it is applied to the network. Afterall, designing, managing, and documenting complex networks such as these require innovative network design tools. But this is not always the case. And so perhaps it is time for operators to look at their planning and design tools through the same lens they use to look at their networks. New technology. New tools. The latest in innovations. Removal of technical debt. Let's go beyond simple points and lines!

Hey, engineering department, planning and designing of a telecommunication network is easy, right?

  • Short cycle work
  • Long cycle work
  • New technology
  • Old technology
  • Existing infrastructure
  • New infrastructure
  • High level design
  • Low level design
  • Bill of materials
  • Capital plan

Many projects.

Complicated projects.

Many documents.

A LOT of documents.

Oh, and we need to get this done . . . yesterday. No problem! <Insert eye roll here>.

Yes, planning, designing, and documenting a telecommunication network is quite involved and complex. And so, we march along, planning, designing, and documenting our networks as best we can, following the paths we are used to. The same old path. Should we question it, this same “old” path of ours? I mean, our networks are constantly improving, and innovating over time. Doesn't it make sense to look at the evolution of design tools as well? Is CAD the only tool to create designs? Are PDFs really that functional? Do you like emailing Microsoft Excel files? Simple points and lines on a sketch are good enough? I can't imagine you said yes to all of these. I wouldn’t either! There must be a better way. There must be technological improvements out there that can take our planning and design activities to the next level. I think there are, and I think it starts with ArcGIS. Examples? Sure, let's go!

Desktop and Walkout Surveys

This type of activity is commonplace and typically happens at the beginning of a network project. The goal here is to create a high-level design of network changes identified alongside other layers of existing network and civil infrastructure. So, you are probably doing this type of activity today, in some way. Or maybe you are skipping the high-level design and heading straight to the walkout to start confirming the real-world infrastructure that exists because of time constraints or lack of confidence in the existing data that you have. I am guessing that walkouts are done sometimes, but not all the time. These activities take time to formally complete, and because there are no good tools that help stitch this activity together in a nice workflow, we might be going through the motions just to go through the motions.

An image of a woman on the street using a tablet to review details of a walkout survey.

I can sympathize. Desktop and walkouts are time consuming. But there is a solution to help streamline this activity, and yes, this solution comes together using the ArcGIS technology stack. The ArcGIS ecosystem is a collection of apps and tools that, when coupled together, seamlessly helps build a desktop/walkout survey solution. New technology to improve the way of doing things, yes! Tools that piece things together like ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Workforce, and ArcGIS Field Maps all managed using ArcGIS Workflow Manager can help deliver a desktop/walkout survey solution using a modern GIS system. These types of solutions can also be complimented with Esri partner solutions to help address some niche aspects of this activity as it relates to your business. What's that you say? You love the way I write, but no amount of well-written prose can convince your engineering department manager to explore anything outside of an "Etch A Sketch"? Hey, I get it. I have dreams too like a formal editor to review my blog posts! Until that time comes, check out this video highlighting a desktop/walkout survey in action using ArcGIS tools! Maybe that will get some people’s attention!

Network Engineering

Next to pure asset management, wireless and wireline network engineering is probably the second most common/important activity a telecom operator is responsible for. It's an essential step to building new networks and upgrading existing ones. Successful execution of this activity often relies on access to "the complete picture". You can imagine the type of information required when designing in a new project. Details about the existing network, existing civil assets, other utility assets, access to the most recent walkout survey, government specific assets, building footprints, easements, right-of-ways, environmentally sensitive areas . . . the list is extensive. All this information is used to help support the engineering process, and yes, you guessed it, this info is spatial in nature. So, why not look to adopt an engineering tool that allows one to design inside of an environment where geography is the foundational canvas?

An image of a fibre optic cable sitting on top of single line schematic diagrams of an electrical and fibre network.

I would argue this is where it all started. 20 years ago. Maybe a little more? The turning point in the history of GIS. As hardware and software evolved, GIS was on the literal desktop of many asset-intensive organizations. Operators in the utilities space saw the potential of having a GIS-based system to design and capture the network. It was new technology that helped operators design the network with the spatial accuracy needed, more efficiently than they could have in the past. Fast forward to present day and GIS is still at the heart of network engineering. The need to design network assets will never go away, and the requirement of spatial accuracy is core to the process. An enterprise grade GIS is no longer a nice to have, but fundamental for utilities. The adoption of ArcGIS Pro and the ArcGIS Utility Network inside of an enterprise GIS deployment is part of a larger strategy, but, indeed, it all starts in engineering.

Engineering Documentation

Ok, so . . .we did a desktop and walkout survey. It's an activity that is geographic in nature. ArcGIS tools can help support this. We looked at network engineering. It's an activity that has geographic underpinnings. ArcGIS tools can help support this, too. Now that our designs are complete, we need to generate the engineering documentation needed to help build out the project. Spatial information products. Things like network designs, construction drawings, staking sheets, map books, single line diagrams, and so on. These documents can be paper-based, sure. That's what we are used to, but they can most definitely be digital documents as well. Digital engineering documents can help streamline the flow of information and provide a dynamic way of managing documents as opposed to static sheets of paper. Or, hey, let's do both!

An image showing engineering blueprints completely rolled out and some rolled up. On top of the focus blueprints is a 3-sided ruler and a pencil.

ArcGIS Pro and the ArcGIS Utility Network provide an ideal framework to start amassing the network details needed to help drive engineering documentation across your organization. It's from this position that engineering teams can start the process of creating information products, both print and digital, but especially on the digital side of things. This segues quite nicely into the ArcGIS system as a system of engagement, allowing for information from engineering to be shared digitally to all stakeholders across the organization that need access. As an example, ArcGIS Online is a great tool for cloud-based access to network design information and work locations. If sharing and communicating engineering documentation to others outside of engineering is of interest, check out my blog post on How to leverage GIS for telecommunication network construction. Build partners and stakeholders need access to this SPATIALLY related information to build the network, right? Ok, ok, let’s not go down that rabbit hole right now. Just check out the blog post later! 

Living in this golden age of technology, I always ask myself, "The task I am working on, yeah I have the tools to get it done, but is there a better way?" Especially when working with tools that are, well . . . showing their age. Or perhaps if there are just too many steps in the way to get the answer I need or complete the task at hand. I think it is fair to ask this when exploring the realm of telecommunication network engineering. We always need to do things better, faster to help drive that competitive edge. And so perhaps it is high time to go beyond points and lines. It is time to look at tools that bring the real-world—our networks—to life. It is time to look at tools that can help us get to that next step, the "digital twin". Yes, that's right. I am not afraid to say that phrase because I believe that the ArcGIS technology stack is extremely well positioned to take planning and design of our communication networks to the next level. Ready to see more? Check out this ArcGIS and Telecommunication Network Planning and Design story map.

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