National Broadband Ireland is on its way to delivering 146,000 kilometres of fibre to over half a million premises across 96 per cent of Ireland’s land mass. It would be fair to say that a challenge like that requires a detailed understanding of the country.
From design through to construction, build and operations, the project is underpinned by technologies including geographic information systems (GIS) mapping and light detection and ranging (lidar).
Dermot O’Kane, head of sales at Esri Ireland, said that it is a significant piece of infrastructure development, but one that is needed more than ever with both our increasing reliance on internet communications and changes to how we live and work in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The telecoms industry in Ireland is thriving at the minute with the rollout of broadband,” he said.
“National broadband is at the centre of that and the government is looking at speeding that up.”
In fact, it is not just Ireland: other countries are also rapidly expanding their connectivity, both wired and wireless.
“We’re part of a global organisation and we can see that it's not just a trend in Ireland, it’s everywhere driven by government support for rural broadband expansion,” he said.
Whether wired or wireless, there are physical characteristics that need to be taken into account in any telecoms delivery, including topography and obstructions.
“Smart use of technology like GIS can help play a role in understanding the landscape,” O’Kane said.
“Given the trend of working remotely, having access is going to be absolutely crucial to that. Trying to transform legacy networks into successful wireless networks means deploying the right technology, in the right place at the right time; we’d fit-in from a GIS perspective in the location piece.”
Indeed, GIS mapping is used in the planning stages, through to network infrastructure design.
Esri Ireland also provides GIS for use during build and operations, however, maps are deployed remotely via cloud services for use in the field. What this brings is interactivity. “The typical workflow will have the back-end office using the desktop tool to do the planning and design, and our customers use our cloud-based platform to connect to the teams on the ground. Workers in the field can take photos, update information, edit and send it back. They can annotate and redline,” O’Kane said.
Previously this would have been done with paper maps, a much more inefficient process, but also one that is inherently not interactive.
The end result is that everyone can communicate and costly, time-consuming and risky data exports can be eliminated.
“The field crews aren’t getting a load of printed maps, marking them up and sending them back. Some contractors have said there’s a 20 to 30 per cent time saving based on that alone,” he said.
Esri Ireland’s data goes far beyond static maps too. Data can be put to work to create visualisations and can be sourced from drones using aerial photography and lidar.
“It’s not just a bare earth map: wireless planning can be done with 3D visualised buildings generated from lidar. Structures like that; or trees, and street furniture can affect connectivity, line of sight to the tower plays a significant role in achieved network speeds.
“In fact, we can create a digital twin of our customer assets like their towers: 3D presentations of your infrastructure, derived from capabilities like drones and UAVs providing lidar is being used in the design and can enable office-based tower inspections,” he said.
Far from just maps, the goal is to deliver a complete geospatial system to telecoms providers and contractors who have the task of building out the network.
“It allows these organisations, be it the telecoms providers or the contactors, to get the job done more effectively, both in decision-making and the site work. They can answer questions like should they build fibre-to-the-home or is fixed wireless more cost-effective.
For O’Kane, this means using real-world data to drive the decision-making process.
“At the heart of that access to data, up-to-date and correct information is key to the successful design and construction of the networks,” he said.