More than 300 years ago, Isaac Newton wrote: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” Although he was not talking about cell towers and the never-ending quest for accurate, consistent and timely tower asset data, his words have relevance even in this decidedly 21st-century domain.
The problem, as many people in the wireless industry are painfully aware, is that a single source of real-time, accurate and sharable data on conditions and equipment on a given wireless tower has proven to be elusive. Tower companies, construction vendors, engineers and architects, telecommunications carriers, broadcast companies and regulators draw on a mind-numbing array of sources for tower data to suit their various needs. When that data is inconsistent, incomplete, incorrect or simply nonexistent, the negative effects ripple out in all directions, affecting lease revenue, equipment inventories, construction scheduling, financial reporting, network planning and engineering, and even disaster recovery.
Despite the mature state of the industry, a surprising shortfall in the quality and timeliness of data about tower assets remains. Every day, incorrect tower data manifests itself in a variety of ways. Examples include:
· Tower companies losing lease revenues or sales because incorrect customer equipment data is used as the source for billing and sales
· Carriers conducting additional and expensive site surveys to validate site data to ensure accurate final site designs, making the design process unnecessarily cumbersome
· Financial analysts for carriers and tower companies nervously reviewing draft financial statements, hoping against hope that the depreciation schedules and asset totals for tower and equipment are correct
· Construction vendor warehouse racks clogged with rapidly depreciating and even obsolete items that were ordered but not needed, or that were purchased as protective buffers in case of last-minute needs at the towers because of incorrect bills of materials that were based on out-of-date tower data
The list goes on, but the point is clear. Industry participants have developed many processes and tools of varying levels of sophistication for collecting, storing and updating tower data. We have frequently seen multiple nonintegrated systems within a single company that have overlapping tower data requirements. Many millions of dollars and vast amounts management attention have been dedicated to patching over this problem. Yet, these efforts have been stymied by lack of cooperation by industry participants, intramural corporate discord (the infamous so-called stovepipe phenomenon that never seems to go away) and a general culture within the industry of building fast at any cost through application of brute force. The problem has been recognized for more than two decades. So, one might reasonably ask, “Can anything be done about it?”
Actually, the answer is “yes.” Something can be done about it, and it comes from a source that some people may casually view simply as a tactical solution to assist in tower inspections. The advantages and challenges of using drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) on towers for collecting tower data are fairly well known in the industry. Readers can find plenty of material on the subject, but it bears repeating that the argument for using drones to improve data quality and ease the collection of that data as a complement to or replacement of traditional sources (e.g., tower climbers, drop tape, ground-level photographs and ground lasers) is a strong one and worth serious examination by any industry participant who has not already done so.
However, the use of drones also opens up an entirely new world of possibilities to solve the problem of multiple sources of data for the same tower. Several companies are spending meaningful amounts of money to prove the concept that the drone flight can represent the first step in a seamless, automated chain that results in a single source of truth for each tower, upon which all parties can rely.
Early efforts are underway in the industry involving cooperation among stakeholders that are traditionally not allied (e.g., tower owners, tenants, construction vendors and regulators) to rapidly take drone-gathered data, analyze it automatically via photogrammetry software and the application of artificial intelligence, marry the resulting processed data to asset databases and then make that data available to all other stakeholders for that tower. Drones, when used with post-processing technology and asset database integration, become components of unmanned aerial systems (UASs), not simply the UAVs with which we have all become familiar.
The next critical step is sorting out the business arrangements between sometimes competing or otherwise adversarial stakeholders for sharing that single source of timely, correct — in a word: true — data. The challenge for carriers, tower aggregators, construction vendors, regulators and other stakeholders is to recognize that a single source of true data for each tower is in the interests of all parties and to creatively seek out opportunities to cooperate with their industry counterparts to find solutions.
The tower owners are the logical owners of this data and focal points of UAS-enabled cooperative data-sharing initiatives. Accurate tower and equipment data is at the core of their business. UAS data (including video and computer-generated visual renderings) can be made available to tenants and, via the tenants, to the contractors — presumably for a fee, but perhaps also as part of the lease agreement. Moreover, the tenants can play an important role in collection of the data. For instance, a given tower may have a single approved UAS system through which data is collected and then post-processed. Tenants can be provided access to the UAVs and flight software to use during project closeout to collect the data, which is then uploaded directly from the UAV.
There are many challenges that the players in the value chain will face in adopting such a model in which there is one single source of UAS-enabled data. Detailed protocols must be developed specifying roles, responsibilities and processes for how data is gathered, integrated, stored, maintained and shared. Effective planning, governance and program management will be essential to making this concept a reality. Finally, contract terms will be needed to address financial responsibility for initial investment and operations, as well as pricing, payments and performance metrics to assure data quality.
As with any form of cooperation among multiple stakeholders, establishing trust and confidence is a critical first step. Pilot projects are indispensable for proving the concept, establishing working relationships and fine-tuning the operational processes. Best practices and lessons learned from the pilot projects may then be used to broaden a program, usually in multiple phases (e.g., regionally based).
From what we have seen, there is enough concrete UAS activity — much of it behind closed doors at this point — to make business and technical conversations about UAS-enabled data-sharing to be useful. The motivation having been established, we now strongly encourage all industry stakeholders that are not already talking with their counterparts — including competitors, customers, vendors and landlords — to do so, and do so with energy and purpose.
The truth depends on it, and Newton would be proud of you.
Tom Burson is a principal at Vertix Consulting.