Operators have long relied on the massive mapping systems and databases in large telecom geographic information systems (GIS) to keep track of the location and condition of their physical plant. But smaller, more database-centric telecom network planning tools that evaluate demographics, usage behavior and local bylaws enable carriers to be smarter about their edge network build-out -- particularly for rolling out wireless broadband infrastructure.
"One of the things that's been driving the increasing use of GIS in the service provider space in terms of edge planning is that the ROI [on network build-out] is declining," said telecom consultant Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp. "People are getting a lot more sophisticated now in how they plan wireless coverage than they [were] before."
For years, operators have used telecom GIS tools for asset management; but in the past year, the role these tools play in telecom network planning has grown, Nolle said. The surge in mobile broadband usage has pressured operators to evaluate build-out decisions from a broader perspective.
"When you move into consumer broadband … you rapidly begin to realize that cell placement and cell loading -- and in 4G, even the radiation patterns from the cells -- have to be very tuned to the demographics and behaviors in the area," Nolle said. "You now have to worry about the coverage density, how many bits of capacity you are able to [support] … and the way in which [consumers] are likely to use the network."
In the hyper-competitive wireless market, a smarter build-out strategy ensures that carriers spend their ever-shrinking revenue more strategically, said Mike Sapien, principal analyst at Ovum.
"There's [something of a] frenzy going on right now because you have AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and Clearwire building out for a 4G network, so I think [telecom network planning] is becoming increasingly important," Sapien said. "Operators have a lot more [usage] data now … and I think they can more prudently map out where their customers are."
Simplifying telecom network planning with GIS tools
Legacy telecom GIS tools are powerful but typically require any data entry to be done by hand -- a tedious enough process for asset management, never mind mapping out U.S. Census data by zip code, Nolle said.
"All of those [legacy] systems can do anything. There's no capability limitation, but getting the data into them is not necessarily a zero-cost function," he said. "A lot of times, [doing so] is more trouble than it's worth."
Smaller, more specialized systems are usually a tenth of the cost of their asset management counterparts -- costing thousands vs. tens of thousands, according to Nolle. They also come preloaded with databases -- or have new ones downloaded and installed easily -- that the software can integrate into operators' legacy telecom GIS tools.
Although providers will always first defer to their own historical usage data, telecom GIS tools that incorporate contextual and demographic information about an area into their legacy mapping systems can provide insight into a place where a carrier may have no experience, Nolle said.
"If you were planning on [building] cell towers in south Philadelphia, and you didn't know there were three sports stadiums located there, you might not realize the … enormous population concentrations are going to have a major effect on tower loading in these geographies," he said. "If you don't have any direct data about where you are providing service, you're going to have to rely on [telecom GIS tools] … so that you don't accidentally either under-supply or over-supply."
Pitney Bowes Business Insight (PBBI), a business services firm that sells the telecom GIS product MapInfo Professional, sells operators hundreds of databases to embed into its telecom GIS mapping tools, enabling users to assess everything from demographics and usage patterns to local insurance rates and zoning laws in a given area.
"You could say, 'I'm focusing on Florida, and I'm looking for risk areas for hurricanes because I don't want to position a tower there or because I'm aware those areas have high insurance rates,'" said Moshe Binyamin, global portfolio director at PBBI. "[The system] takes into account historical data from the [operators] as well as demographic information we provide."
About 60% of PBBI's work with operators is with wireless network planning, according to Chris Cherry, the firm's director of communications for business verticals. The company names Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile as its high-profile customers, and it also worked with Verizon on strategizing its FiOS build-out, Cherry said.
Although regarded as one of the leaders, PBBI is far from the only telecom GIS vendor. There are "hundreds of companies that have GIS" tools, about a dozen of which are open source, Nolle said. Nearly all -- powerful legacy systems or smaller specialty tools -- are purchased, he added.
Other specialized telecom GIS vendors include GeoResults, which offers databases that list and map locations and rental information for U.S. cell sites, switching offices and collocation facilities. Its other products, Market Check and Market View, analyze new and existing markets using aerial imagery, street-level maps and a combination of demographic data.
Esri, which works with a variety of vertical markets, enables service providers to simplify telecom network planning by integrating its databases with an operator's own data to analyze competition and new opportunities. Using Bing Maps, its desktop product, Business Analyst, evaluates potential markets with competitor penetration, demographic data and information about local businesses and points of interest.
As part of a recent batch of updates to MapInfo, PBBI also lightened its load by turning to the cloud for its aerial imagery, partnering with Microsoft and its Bing Maps platform. Prior to this, operators individually purchased sections of aerial imagery as they needed them and thus had to store terabytes of images, Binyamin said. Now, operators won't need to store those files locally and can pay for only those tiles (sections of Bing's aerial image maps) that they download.
PBBI also has put its 100-plus-page hardcopy catalogue of databases into a searchable online repository and embedded the search engine into its mapping tools, enabling users to download a database and incorporate it immediately into their decision-making process, he said.
"The less time you spend figuring out the software," Binyamin said, "the faster you can get the value -- which is getting your question answered."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer