Broadband is the marriage of telecommunications and cable technologies. As it is rightly said, “Necessity is the mother of invention”, the last decade saw tremendous advancements in the arena of digital and fiber optic technologies: key elements empowering the broadband technology.
Broadband technology has not only given a new meaning for information exchange, but has also been the building blocks for the so-called “Information Superhighway”. Besides fostering a new class of consumer and business related services such as IP based telephone and video conferencing services, Video On Demand (VOD), home networking etc., it has also resulted in increased cable modem penetration and deployment of cable telephony services, making cities digitally intelligent.
Broadband technology besides being looked upon as an innovative technology, as a tool to make the city residents digitally literate, competent and proficient, it is also being looked upon as an “always-open gateway” to a new world of telecommunications and cable technologies and as the buildings blocks for the so called “Information Superhighway”, expected to dictate the economic development of the cities of the third world.
Need for an Intelligent Broadband Information System
As with most utilities, cable companies traditionally create and maintain detailed paper maps of their systems (network and equipments). In the last decade these paper maps became increasingly generated and stored using CAD and rarely did these MSO’s employ the software for tasks beyond simple drafting. In other words the CAD technology was merely used to create an image for the purpose of engineering documentation, whilst maintaining key data in disparate spreadsheets and other databases to manage their key assets.
With the tremendous pace at which the broadband infrastructure is being deployed and given the ever-growing consumer needs, the cable and broadband companies are at crossroads. Moreover these systems expand geographically and functionally every day. The realities of this new paradigm have made obsolete, the manual, non-integrated approach to asset management, network monitoring and customer care that characterized the cable industry’s simpler past.
In the absence of a comprehensive out-of-box solution in place and faced with the competitive realities, the cable companies are finding it difficult to not only manage the increasing volume of CAD documents associated with such network systems, but their real assets on the field as well. The engineering departments rely on system maps painstakingly drawn by drafters and residing in legacy CAD/Database combination files, paper maps, disparate spread sheets and other such formats, thereby making their enterprise wide usage redundant. By virtue of the manner in which such critical cable plant network data is maintained and managed, quicker and accurate decisions are next to impossible.
It is in this context that GIS finds importance in not only giving asset management a new dimension with the ability to handle geospatial data but also in revolutionizing the way in which such key assets are managed. In the recent years the trend has been to integrate geospatial and asset management systems to provide the most natural and effective links in utility information management and this synergy has been quite evident.
Awakened by the shortcomings of the CAD/Database combination approach of the existing legacy systems to maintain key network element information and faced with the competitive realities, it seemed only logical for IMMCO, Inc. to apply geospatial technology for a solution to this crisis.
Intelligent Broadband Information System – What is it?
IMMCO, Inc has been serving the Broadband/ Cable industry for the past 10 years and this rich experience along with its skilled in-house GIS team has gone into developing this Intelligent Broadband Information System: a second to none, revolutionary web based GIS system developed in-house at IMMCO, Inc. to address the key issues confronting such systems like: Network monitoring & Optimized Efficiency in Service, Ability to take Quicker and Accurate Decisions, Better Asset Management etc.
Aptly named as iBISS (Intelligent Broadband Information System and Services), is a revolutionary web based GIS designed for cable TV operators and other utility companies. It is a linkage of databases and maps, thereby creating a searchable interface that includes the simplest functionalities like zooming and panning to the sophisticated ones like printable reports and completely searchable and locatable network elements.
iBISS is an effort by IMMCO, Inc. to help the MSO’s migrate their cable plant data from their existing obsolete legacy CAD/ Database systems to a web based GIS system like iBISS, thereby not only derive enterprise wide benefits but also effectively manage their assets, avoid intelligence redundancy and have the information about their assets at their finger tips.
The making of iBISS
Intelligent graphics and data binding between the graphical elements on a map and its corresponding information in a database is the essence of any GIS system and true to this, iBISS is the set of tools and technologies that does this.
With the key task of iBISS being to enable the Broadband, Coaxial, Fiber and other network element information data of cable companies residing in legacy CAD/Database systems accessible to its users enterprise wide via corporate intranet or the World Wide Web, the first step and the most challenging for IMMCO, Inc. was to perform spatial & attribute data mining and migration from the traditional CAD/Database format combinations to a user friendly, cost effective and easy to use GIS format. On several considerations MapInfo?’s TAB format seemed to fit in to these requirements.
To avoid GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out), before the process of mining the data from the traditional systems, IMMCO, Inc. does what is known as data scrubbing and validation. In this process the key information based on the nature of the queries and reports required for a MSO, is filtered out. The inaccuracy and inconsistency of the data is brought to the attention of the MSO and appropriate action taken before taking it up for data migration. The input data for migration to MapInfo, is run through several processes checking for the database integrity, signal levels, engineering design consistency, design and drafting errors etc. before the files are sent for migration. This is necessary and a critical process in the life cycle of the project, due to the inconsistencies that creep in during the drafting and design processes of these files that are carried out not by one contractor but by several of them. In some instances due to technological limitations at the time of data migration many of the system maps are unintelligent. These are made intelligent by a skilled in-house team either by manual or semi-manual drafting and design processes.
Another obstacle in the path was the multiplicity of CAD formats like Bentley?’s MicroStation, AutoCAD? etc. and databases like Oracle, dBase etc. in which the spatial and attribute data respectively to be migrated resided. Thanks to the powerful spatial data translation and transformation software from a third party company. With the aid of custom-made translation files designed in house, the data mining is done at various levels to migrate the unintelligent or relatively less intelligent data into a more intelligent piece of geospatial data in MapInfo. This is essential to enable the network elements to be completely searchable in a web based GIS environment and this is satisfied by virtue of the carefully designed data model and layer structure of iBISS.
The next task was to not only make this intelligent piece of network information available for enterprise wide use but to also provide the end users at various levels with the appropriate tools and interface for querying, report generation and other such routine tasks relating to the cable industry.
MapXtreme, MapInfo’s mapping server that leverages Internet and intranet technology to distribute powerful mapping functionality to geospatial data was our first choice. Along with the appropriate development tools, based on our interaction with some of our most prestigious cable MSO’s and understanding of the key end user requirements, an appropriate web GIS interface has been developed to make the most out of iBISS.
The power of iBISS?
Beyond making intelligent network maps available for enterprise wide use, iBISS has other features that can be used for network operations, field engineering, marketing & sales and engineering purposes.
To quote a few:
The Network Operations Center (NOC) could use iBISS for trouble ticket dispatch at a quicker pace with no more rummaging through cumbersome paper maps or Run an OTDR trace to locate the fiber cut for service restoration or Quickly highlight the consumers who will be affected from an outage, so that the alternative measures could be planned.
The Engineering department can plan before they dig up, as the network plant data is made available overlaid with appropriate GIS landbase layers in iBISS. The engineers can locate any piece of network element like amplifiers, power supply, cables etc. The customer addresses can be clicked to get information like What type of cables run to it? Where is the feeding amplifier? Which node is it connected to? How many houses are wired to the same network? Where are they? and so on. The powerful reporting option could be used to quickly generate engineering inventory reports like the total cable footage, house counts, count of specified pole types within a given service area and so on.
The Accounting department for the inventory report on its valuable assets out in the field has to simply pick the fields on which they wish to generate the reports and the powerful report generation option in iBISS does the rest. Other typical applications would be like franchise fee calculations, weekly or monthly field inventory statements.
The Marketing and Sales department can use iBISS to locate their “Best Customers” based on specific criteria and this could be for their proposed service area or could be within the existing ones. This can also be done to identify the “Best Business” location. iBISS along with the business related layers like the consumer concentration, their preferences etc. can be effectively used to identify areas suitable for reference or direct advertisement.
The application areas of iBISS is not limited to the above listed areas but spread across the enterprise. Moreover iBISS offers a wide range of scope to integrate this web based GIS system with other existing Work Management Systems (WMS) at various levels. This is possible by virtue of the open architecture of iBISS. By integrating iBISS with other corporate databases and Work Management Systems, iBISS can not only serve as a web based tool to visualize non-geospatial data by geocoding them to an existing geospatial entity but also simplify operations at different levels and enable quicker and accurate decisions to be made.
Integrating IBISS with work Management Systems
Integrating GIS with other systems increases its value proposition and gone are the days of a standalone GIS system. By integrating iBISS with other work management systems, one can get a wider range of benefits. Work management systems could be anything from a market analysis system to an outage management system or a bandwidth management system. By using powerful geocoding tools the non-geospatial data associated with such systems can be tied to an appropriate spatial entity in the existing geospatial network data in iBISS. This not only allows for an opportunity to visualize the non-geospatial data associated with such systems, but to also display the output from such systems on an intelligent GIS map. As an example the output from an outage management system could be used to display the trouble ticket location at the appropriate zoom level with other GIS layers on an iBISS map. In most cases the existing outage management systems or any other work management systems for that matter lack such an interface leaving the decision makers with no choice other than a rugged display of the output from such system. There can be no doubt on the ability of GIS to discover existing dormant relationships between various entities. Moreover in the case of existing work management systems, they are discrete and this makes it impossible to bring valuable information in a timely manner. The role of iBISS or any other web based GIS for that matter would be to tightly integrate these systems and provide the users with the ability to view all the critical components of their operations processes at the click of a button.
Scalability and Open Architecture
iBISS, though built on MapInfo TAB file format, the data translation tools and the technology used allows for the flexibility to have the application available on other Open GIS systems like Oracle Spatial or Microsoft SQL Server. Again this is a factor dictated by the end user, viz. the cable companies or sometimes the existing GIS or corporate systems also have a say on the GIS architecture of iBISS. All of this is possible, thanks to the robust data model and architecture of iBISS. With little or no modifications, iBISS can be customized to specific needs, and this is a necessary evil as it is needless to say that each cable system is a world of its own.
Of all creatures, humans are the only ones who can ponder over and understand a situation and the only ones who can think up ways of doing something about a problem in a rational and logical way.
GIS may not be the paragon of all virtues, but it could be important as a tool for addressing key problems and rudimentary processes of the Broadband industry. Building the “Information Superhighway” with the Broadband technology to improve economic development, make city residents digitally literate and the cities intelligent is a mammoth task and with GIS, “Sky is the limit!”
“GIS temper, Let’s not lose it!”
The author expresses his deep sense of gratitude to Dr.Ramesh Iyer, President, IMMCO, Inc. and Mr.P.V.Rai, Managing Director, Pixel Infotek Pvt. Ltd, who have been a constant source of encouragement and in providing an opportunity to the author and his GIS team to develop such a GIS application.
The author is thankful to all his colleagues for their encouragement, technical help and moral support, without which the application would not have seen the “Light of the Day”.
Last but not the least the author wishes to remember his tutors at the Division of Urban Systems Development, Anna University, Chennai, for being responsible for his first step into the world of GIS.
- The McGraw-Hill Companies, “GIS, WMS find common ground”, Platts Energy Business and Technology, November/ December 2002, Vol.4, No.7, www.platts.com/business
- PBI Media, LLC, “Monitoring Your Network”, Communications Technology International, July 2001, www.bigpipe.com