Widening connectivity through access to high-speed broadband and ongoing fibre deployments is a crucial priority for the telecoms industry, especially given our increased reliance on these services following the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with global 5G adoption expected to almost triple in 2021, it’s clear that there is a long way to go if the industry is to expand the reach of telecoms networks in line with this increased demand.
In March 2021, the UK government allocated £5bn of public funds to delivering gigabit-speed broadband to the most remote 20% of UK premises that are deemed commercially unviable by traditional private investment. This took place in the shadow of concerns that national roll-out will be significantly slower than predicted, with the original promise of 100% gigabit-speed connectivity nationwide by 2025 reduced to 85% last November. Indeed, a major hurdle that telecoms organisations face today is a lack of open, decentralised data both within and across companies to help this transition take place smoothly.
Increasingly disconnected data sources and growing volumes of information to analyse pose a serious problem for senior technical decision-makers in field and operational teams. Opening up this information can provide valuable insights that can streamline broadband roll-out and shorten timescales. Organisations that fail to integrate this data into fibre roll-out plans run the risk of leaving this potential goldmine of business growth untapped, while slowing progress towards the ultimate goal of nationwide connectivity.
Fragmented, inaccessible data discourages collaboration
For high-speed broadband to effectively reach rural locations in line with government targets, it is no longer possible to depend entirely on major telecoms operators. Instead, a diverse market of “alt-net” providers, WISPs, and organisations in transport and government domains, as well as commercial operators willing to lease out and share bandwidth, will be essential to complement larger networks and reach underserved areas that may not be commercially viable for major infrastructure investment.
Many providers don’t make the most of the wealth of data at their fingertips as they plan broadband expansion projects into underserved areas. As networks continue to grow and become more complex, having an accurate, live view, and being able to act on that information, will be the key to improving efficiency with a goal of making more remote areas commercially viable. For example, geospatial data on existing duct and pole infrastructure is often held in difficult to access formats, making the use of that asset information in new deployments cumbersome and costly for new operators entering the market. Not only does this fragmented, inaccessible data discourage collaboration within and across teams, it also compromises the efficiency of expansion and the resiliency of those networks for smaller alt-net operators.
Process silos continue to exist between workflows such as maintenance and construction; and between datasets such as records of defects or as-builts. This is particularly harmful to smaller operators that may not have the financial resources to incorporate 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 signal or tall buildings that could host 5G antennae, could be missed entirely, both exacerbating existing delays to the construction process as well as missing out on potential sources of improved economic viability.
‘Open data’ is the answer
It is imperative that organisations break down internal and sector-wide silos by encouraging efficient, joined-up data sharing. In fact, we have witnessed this beginning to take place first-hand. BT Openreach is now legally mandated to open its Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) database to other companies to facilitate more agile, efficient, and joined-up broadband infrastructure planning.
This information sharing has allowed smaller alt-net providers to capitalise on the opportunity, opening up their internal data so that disparate departments and divisions can incorporate relevant PIA data into all processes. By integrating external PIA data with internal information, new market entrants gain access to a foundation of accurate information to guide an efficient deployment of broadband into new geographies which helps achieve national broadband connectivity targets.
Opening up access in this way enables the field teams of alt-net providers to quickly report corrections back to operational decision-makers. Not only does this process improve the accuracy and quality of the PIA data itself, but collecting rich, up-to-date information with mobile applications allows smaller operators to gradually improve and enhance their own records through incremental changes and to do so in a cost-effective way. This ‘virtuous circle’ of open data allows integrated PIA and field data to be instantly shared with field and office teams via mobile apps, critically shortening the time required for surveying, permitting and construction; before final as-built data is then fed back to the organisation that began the process.
In the next few years, telecoms organisations will need to take a different approach to the collection, analysis, and distribution of data within teams and across divisions if they are to successfully reach underserved communities and achieve 100% high-speed broadband coverage as soon as possible. This will need to involve a shift to an open, collaborative approach that prioritises efficiency and transparency.
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