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GIS Use in Telecommunications Growing
To be competitive, telecommunications providers depend on a smoothly functioning work flow process that integrates information for marketing, demand forecasting, engineering, customer management, operations support, and fleet management. Although telecommunications providers generally have the same needs for information, how the work flow is organized can vary significantly from company to company.
Historically telecommunications companies have used an assortment of information systems-some developed in-house, some purchased-that were never designed to work together. When these systems were implemented, there was no perceived requirement for information sharing. Today telecommunications companies operate networks that have equipment from multiple vendors and lease bandwidth and antenna sites from other companies. Mergers with, or acquisition of, other companies require the incorporation of, or at least interaction with, completely foreign networks.
The need for information sharing within companies and interoperability between systems has been recognized by the telecommunications industry for a long time. Originally founded in 1865 as International Telegraph Union, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) promotes standards in equipment that guarantee generalized interconnection between communication systems. To improve interoperability, ITU has developed the Telecommunications Management Network (TMN), a method of standardizing business organization. This hierarchy of support systems specifies interoperability through the use of industry-standard protocols. Geospatial applications need to support this same level of interoperability if GIS is to work well within this TMN-structured environment.
Many current applications of GIS in the telecommunications industry began as departmental tools that worked within a well-defined scope. These GIS-based tools have helped automate business processes and increase the efficiency of operations. The following sections describe how telecommunications companies have integrated GIS into the overall work flow.
Telecommunications providers are tied to geography more closely than many other types of businesses. They operate within service areas and the infrastructure that delivers services is linked directly to the location of each customer. Telecommunications companies segment the characteristics for both consumer and business customers geographically using GIS. This not only lets them market more effectively but also helps them forecast the demand for services. Both targeting customers and predicting where and when growth will occur involves integrating corporate intelligence, demographic data, and information about the progress of building projects in the area with location data and applying various modeling techniques. The information obtained from this analysis drives network investment budgets and marketing campaigns.
Operations Support Systems
Operations Support Systems (OSS) make sure that the network functions properly. OSS includes activities such as network monitoring, outage management, billing, and testing. With a shared GIS database, staff members have instant access to customer status and history, existing plant records, and signal quality information to support updates, maintenance and repairs to the network.
Intelligent objects modeled in ArcGIS not only have rules that speed the design process but also can reflect the status of network elements. A query can identify features in a network element layer that are at 80 percent of capacity more than half of the time. The switches, base stations, and other features selected by this query would be candidates for capacity enhancements. The ability to anticipate problems and prevent outages before they occur is another tool that enables carriers to be more competitive and reduce costs. This so-called "near real-time" monitoring of networks necessitates integration of several systems using industry standard interoperability protocols.
Capacity and Capital Planning
Information generated by marketing and market segmentation activities that define current and future communication demands can be used to create a logical network of capacities and estimate the capital spending required to build this capacity. GIS is widely used in decision support for capital planning. Effective capacity planning uses current data describing the existing plant, the demand information from the marketing phase, and network performance information from OSS.
Wireline engineering systems are GIS applications that work with the design and geographic layout of a company's outside plant infrastructure. Engineering applications allow for quick review and modeling of network routes, automation of the work order process, and high volume cartographic output to support technicians in the field.
ArcGIS can model intelligent objects in the network and associate rules with features. Through the use of industry-specific data models, real-world behavior can be captured in these objects. [See the accompanying article, "Telecommunications Data Model Available."] For example, a fiber cable object can be created with rules that would not allow it to connect to a copper splice. This capability greatly enhances design performance. Because they use an industry-standard development platform, ArcGIS-based engineering systems are interoperable. Third party software that schematically represents networks has been integrated with ArcGIS so that users can toggle between logical and physical views of the network.
Nowhere is competition in the telecommunications industry more intense than in the wireless sector. While most second generation networks have rolled out, new wireless network technologies are forcing carriers to redesign all or parts of their networks. Designing and building a wireless network is a costly process that involves several iterations of planning and testing. Having paid handsomely for third generation (3G) licenses, many carriers are highly motivated to reduce the cost of building new networks.
Performing sophisticated GIS analysis on optimized geographic data can reduce planning and design costs. In some cases, effective use of geographic resources has made the difference between success or failure for a telecommunications company. Preliminary analysis with GIS uses customer, terrain, and landownership information and provides planners with potential antenna sites. The initial network configuration is evaluated using wave propagation modeling that simulates the wireless coverage resulting from a configuration. Once an optimal model is devised, engineers test the configuration in the field. The process is repeated until the configuration provides optimal coverage for the area. Wireless engineering applications illustrate that sharing information and geographic data between phases of the work flow can reduce data redundancy while streamlining processes. Using GIS to limit the number of design iterations and curtail costly field testing provides significant savings for telecommunications providers.
Customer Relationship Management
In today's competitive telecommunications market, customer service is the number one differentiator for companies. Customer relationship management (CRM) applications improve the relationship between the company and its customers. Timely service provisioning, response to customer queries, and reporting on network performance are aspects of CRM. With GIS, call center operators can access all the information on a customer and the associated network based on location. Databases containing information on outside plant infrastructure, signal quality, and equipment can be integrated using GIS and made available using a corporate Intranet.
In CRM, Tier 1 handling means the customer's issue is resolved with the initial call. Tier 2 calls require initiating a trouble-ticket and obtaining additional information. Carriers who have successfully implemented GIS support for CRM achieve higher Tier 1 handling and customer service is performed more quickly and economically. With CRM contacts at an all-time high, improving CRM operations can make a big impact on the bottomline of a carrier. In the wireless sector, "churn" refers to the rate that customers jump from one service provider to another. For many carriers, customer churn is the single largest cost factor. GIS improves the speed and quality of contact handling, augments customer satisfaction, and reduces churn.
Communications companies must manage and route service vehicles for outage response and service provisioning. An efficient dispatch process balances drive times, territories, and the skill sets of individual technicians. GIS routing applications can produce itineraries that take each of these factors into account. Optimizing the dispatch and routing of service vehicles results in significant cost and time savings and increased customer satisfaction because technicians can often specify time windows for service calls of two hours or less.
Putting It All Together: Enterprise GIS
When GIS applications servicing various phases of the work flow are interoperable and a networked GIS distributes geographic data to desktops and mobile devices, the value of GIS to the organization moves well beyond that of a departmental tool. For example, a sales representative can make a compelling business case for the sale of bandwidth to a corporate prospect by showing the prospect's location in relation to the telecommunications company's infrastructure. Network infrastructure provided by AM/FM systems is used for decision support in the provisioning process. Technicians in the field locate the correct manhole, pole, or access point by using the same data. Coverage maps and testing data for wireless networks can be instantly viewed by call center operators dealing with customer complaints. More complex applications include geospatial data in data warehousing systems and are used in conjunction with On Line Analytical Processing (OLAP) clients to add a "where" dimension to corporate business intelligence.
The ArcGIS 8.1 suite is a fully scalable GIS that can work in a heterogeneous environment and support the tools, databases, and networks that telecommunications companies require. Esri is working to integrate GIS applications in the TMN hierarchy. This will improve enterprise deployments and resolve interoperability issues. Field engineering tools and the use of mobile networks making geographic information available through wireless devices to business and consumer users will further increase the value of GIS. Telecommunications executives who make complex decisions will find GIS indispensable for decision support. GIS provides an overview of the company and the work flow. The addition of location services driven by GIS will generate additional revenue for telecommunications carriers and their business partners.
The investment telecommunications companies make in geospatial data and technology will yield benefits in business process automation, improved decision support, and value-added services for years to come.
For more information on the use of GIS in the telecommunications industry, visit www.esri.com/telecomm or contact
Kees van Loo