The Need for Speed – In recent years, national wireless carriers have been racing to keep up with the public’s voracious appetite for data consumption.
Despite every advancement in technology that provides the public with more bandwidth and increased data transfer speeds, the ensuing consumption quickly exhausts this increased capacity. As users, we have a seemingly insatiable hunger for streaming media and ubiquitous, reliable high-speed wireless data networks. This has resulted in the carriers responding with colossal nationwide projects to upgrade existing infrastructure to 3G and, more recently, 4G LTE coverage.
In designing these projects one need remains the same ─ speed! While on-air speed to market is critically important, it cannot be achieved at the cost of quality. The integrity of the initial engineering design survey and the data obtained during those few short hours on site ─ whether in sun, rain or snow ─ are the foundation of the engineering design and drawings which ultimately land in the hands of the person actually building the site.
Technology Advances to Keep Pace – The telecommunications industry is a vibrant environment for engineers. Although many things have changed during my 15 years in the industry, on-air and speed-to-market timelines have remained a driving force in successful engineering project management. Having experienced the design and deployment of totally new carrier networks from the ground up, as well as technology enhancements and overlays of existing sites in both Europe and the U.S., I’ve had a unique opportunity to see a wide variety of engineering site design scenarios and challenges.
While I don’t consider myself old, my first professional engineering experience in telecom site design was completed with equipment and tools which are now considered archaic by many. My younger colleagues at KMB laugh when I recall using measuring wheels, steel tapes and yes, a pencil and paper! Field notes were gathered from site to site, transferred back to the office and then incorporated into a site design package the following day.
From there, they were submitted to the engineering department to develop the design and drawing packages for real estate negotiation and, ultimately, construction drawings. Even as recently as three years ago, this basic approach was still the industry standard.
But like all things telecom related, three years is now a generation. Recent improvements in survey tools have changed the site design process forever. The tape and wheel, for example, have been replaced with a handheld laser accurate to ±0.04 inches over 650 feet, thus improving both the accuracy and speed of field design surveys. The tablet computer now enables the field engineer to sketch sites as soft copy PDFs or even within AutoCAD in the field. The advancement of wireless connectivity and cloud computing of tablets allows the field engineer to transfer complete site design packages to the engineering department within minutes of walking the site. These technology improvements and real-time information/data transfers have decreased the margin of human error, data loss and the boundaries of the business day to make productivity skyrocket.
Another unique aspect of these changes in wireless technology is illustrated in our own consumption of the technology we engineer to support the ecosystem. As new wireless devices come to market, the user demand and data usage levels will only increase and further stretch the capacity of existing networks. For example, at KMB we are currently using the wireless data available to our tablet PC devices in the field to aid our engineers design both new wireless sites and 4G LTE overlays throughout the nation.
Once a field design visit is completed and saved to the cloud, the office-based team is immediately notified, the data is downloaded to the network, submitted for QC review and then to engineering. In this fast-paced era of near-instant communication, we are both the engineers and consumers of the technology, and we are a key link in the wireless deployment chain to bring this improved wireless technology to the public.
In an industry where wireless technology solutions constantly evolve, the question remains, “Are engineers supporting their clients and services utilizing the best technology available?”
Our firm has continued to invest in cutting-edge technology to enable our field engineers to have laser survey tools, wireless tablet PC’s, and new ways to increase our productivity. Having the latest engineering and survey tools to provide the best quality possible is not only necessary, it is crucial for supporting the next stage of infrastructure build outs.
There is no doubt that the future will only further technology growth and development on the existing wireless sites with the addition of new site builds to fill coverage gaps and congestion. As an industry, we are pushing to get as much equipment as possible onto the towers, rooftops and in the compounds. We are adding RRU’s at the antenna sectors and equipment cabinets on the ground to squeeze as much capacity out of the site as possible. In these situations, the accuracy of the engineering survey of the tower and ground space is essential for the design of the equipment, fiber/coax routes and utilities. A small margin of error in design can result in both major time delays and cost increases during construction.
We want more – We continue to embrace the wireless tools and connectivity available that allow us to enjoy the business and social benefits of the wireless ecosystem, but we want more! We have an expectation of wireless connectivity regardless of where we are, and when we find ourselves in areas with limited coverage or no coverage, we find it just unacceptable. In an industry which appears to have no limitations, what are the limitations?
Spectrum – Is our advancement throttled back by the availability of wireless spectrum? The simple answer is yes, and I was therefore pleased to listen to FCC Acting Chairwomen Mignon L. Clyburn, during CTIA 2013, announce the upcoming FCC spectrum auctions. The availability of spectrum and the right spectrum is essential for the USA to compete and push forward to stay ahead of the worldwide competition in wireless technology deployment.
So What’s Next – Where we will be 5 years from now? 6G or something completely different? Regardless of what the technology is called, certain things will remain. First and foremost will be speed-to-market in regard to technology deployment. This will increase the need for professional engineers with the latest wireless and survey tools, qualifications and experience to ensure that the technology is designed accurately and deployed correctly.
Stephen Banks is a Partner and Senior Vice President of KMB Design Group, LLC
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