The infrastructure asset class of towers is worth $300 billion. A towerco, which owns and operates tower sites and all the equipment on them, may make or break its business by managing its passive mobile infrastructure assets without the right, purpose-built tools and applications.
Most towercos’ current approach to data management is misaligned with that of their MNO customers, restricting commercial prospects for both parties. Even though many MNOs have sophisticated data strategies, towercos still rely on Excel and manual efforts to analyze the performance and valuation of their sites and assets. Towercos must act quickly to embrace digital transformation to grow and sustain their operations while also opening up new revenue streams.
Acquiring additional assets and saving costs through automation and predictive maintenance, calls for a need to adopt new data collection and sophisticated data management approaches. To stand out in a crowded market, towercos need to be more data-driven, using analytics and cutting-edge technologies.
Paradigm shift in towerco data management
Many towercos' are increasingly looking for new income streams linked to MNOs' deployment of denser, more sophisticated networks necessary for 4G growth and 5G. As their neutral host partners, they need to be capable of supporting small cells, edge computing, fibre, and other value-added services. With so many additional variables to consider, an intelligent data management system will be essential for monitoring performance and avoiding issues. Here are some key ways how robust data management platforms can help towercos:
- To help make better decisions by improving the capacity to track assets and apply intelligence to data.
- To reduce site and maintenance costs, notably by reducing the frequency of site visits (the greatest operational cost for towercos).
- To manage an expanding number of assets, including small cells, fibre, and edge nodes.
Meeting these objectives will be difficult without the ability to collect detailed data on each site. Towercos' MNO clients will be impacted by a lack of data intelligence, as MNOs will know less about their physical sites than they do about their active equipment, limiting their ability to plan and optimize network performance in an integrated manner. Intelligent data management can help towercos fulfill their goals in the following ways:
- Make sophisticated analytics possible, allowing for more precise asset valuations when negotiating tenancies, purchases, and service level agreements (SLAs).
- Provide real-time data on site performance and possible issues.
- Give predictive capabilities for site expansion, renovations, and maintenance.
A step-by-step approach based on best practices
A study by Analysys Mason found a significant gap between towercos' long-term goals and their actual behaviors. The majority still relied heavily on using Excel as their primary tool and admitting to having significant knowledge gaps about their tenants' equipment and even assets. Many towerco executives purchase tower portfolios with only the most basic knowledge of the equipment; others track only key sites. Towercos' out-of-date data management systems are restricting their future success potential.
Here is a step-by-step approach they can adopt to stay on top of their game:
Adopt a multi-layered approach
Although towercos are aware of the benefits of an intelligent data management plan, there is a significant gap between expectations and reality. Choosing to leapfrog their competitors and even MNOs by going all-in is the most attractive option, but for the most part, a step-by-step plan will be more workable. Towercos should start by looking for some early victories.
Methods that give a strong short-term return on investment (ROI) to boost management confidence and achieve at least a few goals should be deployed first and then, follow it up to create a more complex, multi-layered architecture. Since so much fundamental information is missing and incorrect, the majority of efforts should be focused on revamping data gathering procedures as a first step. Most of the activities that are now carried out through site visits may be automated using a variety of methods. Towercos must combine all of the data into a rich repository once the data is of greater quality. They'll be in a better position to embrace sophisticated analytics in the future, such as machine learning and augmented reality (for example, a "digital twin" of a tower that can be used to control the physical asset from the cloud).
Invest in an integrated data strategy
Due to financial restrictions, most towercos continue to use antiquated data collection and processing techniques; as other areas of investment have typically taken precedence. Towerco management units, on the other hand, recognize that their business model is evolving from pure real estate ('concrete and steel') to something more complex. As MNOs consolidate, towercos must arm themselves with more information to deal with these more powerful clients. Towercos will also be pushed to develop new income streams by expanding into small cells and edge computing, as well as offering additional value-added services like site-uptime and real-time power management.
Intelligent data management systems will be crucial to these new commercial prospects. Over the coming years, towercos will have to scale up their systems considerably to track the growing number of assets. Before they can implement service level agreements, they'll require far more precise and detailed information about each location. Much of the basic data in towercos' Excel spreadsheets is now outdated, such as the tower's height and the number of antennas on it.
The need for towercos to seize new possibilities will assist to create a stronger case for investing in technologies that gather data in a granular, automated manner and then integrate it into a single repository so that deep analytics can be used.
Work in collaboration with MNOs
MNOs' neutral host partners (towercos) will be at a disadvantage if they are unable to realize the value of their sites and make smart economic judgments. Although MNOs' better data platforms may provide them with a competitive edge when negotiating with towercos, the risk of making network plans and decisions based on an inadequate understanding of the physical assets that support the MNOs' base stations exceeds this benefit. MNO radio engineers, for example, regularly get site drawings from a towerco. An MNO should be as informed about sites, power, and fibre while working with a neutral host partner as they are when working with their assets. If they don't, they'll have a difficult time densifying their network plans for 5G since they won't know which sites are the most efficient or productive, or where they'll need to spend the most resources.
MNOs and their towerco partners may communicate highly varied data sets, even within the limitations of confidentiality and competitive intelligence, to create a complete plan for constructing, maintaining, and extending a network. This is especially important as many towercos operate with a "build-to-suit" model, in which they deploy sites to meet the needs of an anchor MNO. This customized strategy benefits both parties, but only if they work in close collaboration with shared information.
Future-proofing towercos with digital transformation
While some towercos envisage a "big bang" approach to data management, the vast majority think that a gradual approach with measurable results at each level will persuade their executive teams. The installation of smart on-site sensors that automatically collect data on factors like power use or antenna weight is a low-risk first step. Similarly, conducting site audits through digital tools is a quick win to create an accurate site and asset database. By identifying the equipment on each tower, towercos may be able to achieve a significant aim straight away: decreasing the number of time-consuming site trips required to accurately bill MNOs.
The focus of the towerco intelligent data management should be based on four pillars:
- Accurate data gathering via a linked IoT platform that eliminates the need for actual site visits and guarantees that information such as location and problems are recognized.
- Develop cost optimization strategies with the aid of an integrated platform that provides an E2E view of assets, including financial, project, and network data.
- Use of machine learning models, for predictive maintenance and problem localization, to help enhance the quality of services.
- Digital Twins that provide value by predicting "what is likely to happen" based on "what has happened" as a framework for knowledge management.
There is, however, a significant distinction between asset tracking and asset performance monitoring. The contrast between these processes and proactive troubleshooting and future planning is much greater. These tasks will necessitate not just the collecting of data, but also the capacity to visualize and analyze it in depth. Augmented reality overlays of on-site equipment for remote monitoring and the utilization of crowd-sourced data to define use per location are two emerging options.
Ultimately, towercos must carry out their digitization strategy for intelligent data management, create innovative use-cases, and provide new solutions to the market that leverage artificial intelligence, and digitalization enablement. These will evolve into new business models for new-age digital towercos, generating new revenue streams and increasing the valuation of their portfolios.