Emerging Trends in Efficient Tower Management Practices
The data explosion in recent years has driven the growth of tower companies worldwide, so much so that there is now a web of millions of telecom towers globally catering to the unending needs of a data-hungry population that is fueling the increased network traffic. According to Ofcom’s Communications Market report 2021, the amount of data an average person uses per month is witnessing a year-on-year increase of about 30% and is expected to grow even further to cater to both human-centric as well as machine-centric data needs. This has led to a surge in the installation of telecom towers, especially across dense markets such as China and India. Moreover, the technological advancements in the telecom industry with new applications such as IoT and the transition towards fourth and fifth-generation networks have also led to the evolution of tower equipment and towercos’ processes of managing them for better operational efficiency and cash flow optimization.
Tower management involves facilitating the various teams within a towerco organization with the appropriate tools and mechanisms to monitor, manage and improve the everyday functioning of tower sites and to ensure that the stakeholders at multiple levels of hierarchy are updated in real-time on how the different operational units are performing. Tracking operational and maintenance expenses, discerning the true value of the sites, and increasing ROI through tapping into unexplored revenue generation opportunities at the tower site are essential components of tower management.
Why is telecom tower management essential?
Telecom tower management is required to guarantee that all the processes are being carried out as planned. Moreover, the assets owned by towercos are capital intensive and the processes time intensive; therefore, ineffective maintenance of tower infrastructure and assets can significantly increase the downtime, thereby adversely affecting the operations of MNOs and eventually the network connectivity of end-users which can significantly bring down the customer value that the towerco needs to provide to its tenants to maintain long-term lease agreements with them.
Failure to adequately maintain the tower sites can affect multiple operators on the site and increase the operational costs of not only the towercos but also of the MNOs. Effective tower management facilitates a superior customer experience for tenants or the MNOs on the site which involves following the SLA norms and making sure that they get the required uptime. This not only helps the MNOs ensure mobile connectivity for the end-users but also contributes to towercos’ revenue growth through customer retention. Moreover, effective asset management is known to increase the life of an asset providing better returns on investment.
Tower Operations Management
Having overall operational visibility is a prerequisite for effective tower management. The senior management at towercos is usually dependent on the remote-support teams for the field data and statistics to analyze tower operations and to manage the assets. Based on this data, insights are drawn on how to plan operational activities to maximize efficiency while keeping the costs at their minimum.
Passive Infrastructure Management
The core business of a towerco includes building, purchasing, and leasing of towers to MNO customers. Monetization of the tower space is primarily the bread and butter of the towerco business model. It goes without saying that management of the telecom tower/ mast/ pole/ street furniture forms the major part of the towerco’s passive infrastructure.
In addition to this, towercos are now also looking into a whole range of assets and services that they can provide to their tenants.
Passive infrastructure management primarily includes energy and security management of the site. The cooling requirements, the functioning of diesel gen-sets, etc. on the tower premises which can be located in areas prone to extreme weather conditions, the safety of valuable equipment and copper wires, are all critical to the towerco’s operations.
Since power and fuel form the major block of operational expenditure for a towerco, provisions need to be made for any power outages based on historical metrics. A single source of truth should be employed to provide accurate and consistent information on when the outage happened and when power was restored as well as the generator type, its capacity, and the fuel consumption during backup power generation.
Telecom towers function on high diesel consumption which leads to colossal greenhouse gas emissions. Amid the inflation in fuel costs, towercos can look into adopting green technologies to not only save operational costs but also play their part in the reduction of the global carbon footprint.
Incorporating renewable energy resources can help cut down carbon emissions over the product lifecycle duration and lead to efficient power management and infrastructure sharing. This will become vital during the transition towards multiple-input multiple-output antennas and manage the massive increase in the number of small sites to cater to the telecom industry’s adoption of 5G, which are geared to significantly increase the energy consumption of the telecom sector.
In emerging and low-income economies where the electrical power supply can be unreliable due to towers not being connected to a national electricity grid, using solar panels and wind energy to power these off-grid towers could let towercos help MNOs expand their coverage to rural areas without inflicting damage on the environment.
Given how resource-intensive the tower infrastructure is, the safety and security of tower premises can’t be ignored either. A remote tower monitoring and management system can help provide 24/7 surveillance, access control, and a detailed breakup of the attendance patterns of the supervisors, engineers, and site technicians.
The backhaul infrastructure, which connects the core network to the access network, and directly impacts the network end-users, is an important component required for MNOs’ operations and can also double up as a revenue-generating tool for towercos who are now looking into leasing out the fiber for backhaul to their tenants. Traditionally, towercos leased tower space to the MNOs while MNOs brought in their own fiber needed for their operations. Now, towercos are able to provide dark fiber to their customers, providing a value-added service to the MNOs.
Moreover, towercos can further split up fiber cores across different mobile network operators, thereby further increasing the revenue-generating opportunities of a towerco. This and other similar in-building solutions are a great opportunity for towercos to fuel their organic growth.
Active Equipment Management
Active equipment management consists of maintaining the balance of services that the towercos provide to the MNOs on their premises, the cost of operating the tower sites, and the quality of operations.
Active operations management involves building the towers, adding new tenants, and managing the SLAs of delivery. Having these agreements in place details the obligations and risks a certain party is willing to take and also becomes necessary in scenarios where an MNO is leasing space on their competitor’s towers.
This can also include automating permission taking by setting up information-sharing portals with landlords so as to ensure that the landlords are not inconvenienced and that towercos are able to maintain a good rapport with them. These operations from the building of the tower to leasing it are time-sensitive and the MNOs need to have sufficient time to come and place their assets on the site and become operational. Therefore, this timeline of building the site and getting it ready for the tenants needs to be tracked and the SLAs associated with it need to be put in place as part of finalizing the tenancy.
Active operations mostly consist of managed services. It involves the towerco or a third-party vendor managing the site, maintaining the assets, etc., and being paid a fee for it. It also involves the installation and commissioning of assets on the site. This also includes lease agreements with the landlords and lease management of the land. Towercos should focus on long-term lease agreements with their tenants by providing them exceptional customer service and rolling out additional offerings that the operators may need to function effectively while following the SLA norms.
For active capacity management, towercos need to be able to manage the resources at their disposal to fulfill the existing demand of services and predict and influence future demand. Strategic choices should be made to effectively balance the capacity and control of assets of the tower portfolio.
The telecom tower could either completely be towerco owned, a joint venture between a towerco and other MNOs or held by multiple MNOs that use it to provide network services. However, depending on who owns the tower and how much ownership stake they hold, the towercos or multiple MNOs are in charge of the construction, operations, and maintenance of these towers while allocating equitable financial risk to all participants. In a lot of emerging economies like Africa, these services are usually outsourced to third parties that in turn take care of them.
Tower Maintenance Management
Tower maintenance essentially begins with an effective inspection that provides accurate data to initiate and carry out the maintenance activities. The three key features that any tower inspection should involve are estimating the current status of the site infrastructure to determine faults etc., maintenance requirements and their respective timelines, and the opportunities for business expansion. Tower maintenance management, like any other maintenance engagement, can be segmented into preventive and predictive maintenance. Learn more about preventive maintenance and how telecom consulting can benefit towercos to streamline and get the best out of their assets by adequately maintaining them in our previous blog.
Preventive tower maintenance is essentially the periodic maintenance activities that are carried out to ensure that the assets are functioning well and to keep the downtime caused by equipment failure at its lowest. Preventive maintenance takes into account the SLA norms and maintenance best practices to schedule maintenance activities at regular intervals. This is usually determined by historic data averages that provide the best odds of eliminating issues even before they start.
Typical preventive maintenance could include a maintenance checklist for infrastructure inspection, calibration, and repair or replacement that the field engineers have to follow. Following this efficiently helps towercos to increase the lifespan of the assets while limiting the unplanned downtime. The transition from legacy data to a single source of truth could help towercos optimize the process and reduce maintenance opex by ensuring that the right people have the right information about the health of the towers so that engineers aren’t required to be sent in for every issue and costs can be saved on assets that can be sweated.
Any time a maintenance activity is carried out on the site, engineers are usually required to be on the site and manually inspect the structures for faults, etc. This inspection element of the maintenance can be made quicker and safer by drone mapping and the creation of digital twins which we have discussed at the end of this blog.
Predictive maintenance of tower infrastructure is the intelligent data-driven strategic management of equipment to monitor and assess their performance based on real-time analytics. While preventive maintenance relies on best practices and historical data, predictive maintenance is proactive in nature that requires shorter periods of planned downtime and can be carried out to analyze the data and raise red flags to correct any tower-related issue in its early stage.
Carrying out effective predictive maintenance calls for better technology infrastructure that can seamlessly merge with a centralized data accumulation and sharing system for better decision making. Predictive Maintenance is mostly carried out for assets such as power, cooling, shelter, etc. and leverages the huge amount of historical data that the towercos have on the functioning of their assets with the AI and machine learning capabilities of the telecom asset management software that the towerco is employing to generate reliable predictive schedules for maintenance. To ensure that the AI has enough historical data to be predictive, towercos can look into the cross-pollination of data from other related activities. For example, the maintenance and breakdown data can be propped up by backup power generation and fuel consumption data or the data from the contract management documents can be backed by the data on the lifetime value and current condition of telecom assets which in return could help towercos review SLAs and negotiate better service terms with the MNOs. Integrating more than one data source makes the system highly centralized and helps ensure continuity of services by resolving issues in real-time. Having such a system in place helps satisfy the information needs of not only the towerco but also of the MNOs and the third-party maintenance contractors. Collecting and utilizing such intelligent data for tower management can help teams visualize patterns in the energy consumption charts and help detect and control fuel wastage. Having a single source of truth can point out the outliers in these asset operation patterns and also help with the detection of fraud if any.
Challenges of Tower Management
- Data Corruption: With a lot of key vendors in the global telecom tower market engaging in partnerships, acquisitions, rollouts, and mergers, the legacy operational and maintenance data is prone to get corrupted.
- Remote Security: Security issues increase the challenges of monitoring tower infrastructure remotely.
- Rise of 5G: The increasing complexity of expanding networks makes tracking energy consumption across all units difficult and raises operational costs.
- Remote Maintenance: For towers in very remote areas, the worker-to-tower ratio drops and compounds the logistical issues of tower management. Especially having unmanned remote sites can increase the number of trips an engineer has to make for the upkeep of the site infrastructure.
- Service Level Agreements: The SLA norms that the towercos have to follow can be very stringent at times.
- Instances: Towercos that operate globally have to cater to the different geographical and regulatory requirements of the market they are operating in.
- Personnel Management: Personnel optimization is another operations management challenge that towercos face as they typically have a low employee-to-tower ratio which drops further in rural areas and poses a challenge to maintain optimum functionality in the current decentralized environment.
Role of Digital Twins in Tower Management
Balancing the complexity of data with simplicity of use is necessary to drive data-backed tower management. Eliminating data silos, optimizing the data at hand, and turning it into actionable intelligence to achieve operational and maintenance efficiency is what tower management is all about.
The site is where all the asset-related information is and inspecting the tower and other equipment on the site to gather this information to draw insights from is essential but can also be a tedious process. The creation of digital twins to capture this information is currently holding the attention of the entire telecom industry. These digital twins are the virtual 3D maps and models of the assets being inspected and are generated through drone mapping and photogrammetry software solutions. The drones take hundreds of overlapping images to create a holistic model of the site or the asset being inspected.
Before their advent, information was collected manually. But taking manual pictures had its own limitations and did not provide the correct angles or the depth of information that an aerial inspection does while saving the field operators an exhaustive climb and the number of inspection trips to the site. The data thus collected was prone to inconsistency and inaccuracy while being time-intensive.
Software available in the market today can not only identify the asset’s dimensions and orientation but also find rust and faults on it. The data thus collected is shareable and actionable which ensures that the details about assets are easy to collate and available in real-time. The data which is now available to the management at towercos can be analyzed to determine the present status of the site infrastructure, setting up predictive maintenance workflows to correct any existing or potential faults and opportunities of site expansion which is where the real value of tower management is. However, the benefits of a digital twin system are incomplete without the backbone of a comprehensive site management platform that holds site and asset data.
Attaining effective tower management through data centralization
For any towerco, the ultimate business goal is to create and sustain a steady stream of positive cash inflow with a strong focus on operational excellence. Not only this, they need to create value for their tenants while optimizing operations and infrastructure management of existing towers to maximize revenue returns on them.
Standardization and centralization in terms of data and subsequent management of operations and maintenance is the key to effective tower management. Towercos are also taking a second look at the traditional towerco business model and adding additional customer-servicing and revenue-generating options to their offering while maintaining a good rapport with landlords. As data fidelity increases, embracing the digital transformation would become vital for towercos to better understand their cost of ownership, current tower portfolio capacity, and state-of-affairs and leverage it for a higher return on investments.