Internet GIS for telecommunications

Internet GIS for telecommunications


Anthony J. Quartararo III
Anthony J. Quartararo III
President & CEO
Spatial Networks, Inc., USA
[email protected]

With the availability of broadband communications, a new delivery model for spatial solutions has arrived. By packaging and integrating comprehensive location-based services, organizations can deliver the power of GIS over the Internet. These services benefit consumers with a lower cost and a highly focused application suite for a variety of industries and markets. This paper discusses spatial ASP solutions for the telecommunications industry.

The spatial ASP model is a reality because of the growth and expansion of global telecommunications infrastructure over the past several years. Most regions of the world have seen a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of the fiber cable and internet data center infrastructure.

In particular, the United States, Europe and Asia have seen the highest concentration of telecom projects, particularly with fiber infrastructure and optical switching technologies. In fact, in India and China alone, over the past several years, over 1.56 million route kilometers of fiber optic cable have been installed1 . This available broadband capacity provides a robust network through which a spatial ASP can deliver the complex and data-intensive applications that are common to GIS. Network performance and latency are comparable in many cases to traditional internal LAN client/server operations. As networking and optical technology continues to advance, the cost and performance of delivering spatial solutions through an spatial ASP model will continue to improve. In the wireless environment, advances continue in 3G technology, and there is now a 4G wireless test bed in Bangalore, India. These broadband wireless frequencies allow sufficient bandwidth so that delivering useful location-based services is becoming more of a reality.

Internet GIS
The development of new web-based technologies from leading GIS vendors as well as third-party thin-client computing platforms such as MetaFrameXP & NFuse from Citrix and Tarantella Enterprise 3: ASP Edition from Tarantella makes the spatial ASP a feasible solution. These new technologies, combined with availability of broadband telecommunications capacity, enables robust solutions to be delivered to a variety of industries. In fact, there are already many examples of successfully deployed spatial ASP solutions in the consumer market, most notably, National Geographic’s MapMachine & While these applications may not necessarily be a traditional, fully analytical GIS , they do provide valuable spatial information, and are delivered via the public internet.

There are more complex examples of spatial ASP deployments, especially in the telecommunications industry. Several in the United States are using traditional GIS client/server and desktop applications under thin-client computing platforms to deploy various customized solutions to geographically dispersed offices and field engineers. This allows for a distributed workforce and a centrally controlled software maintenance operation. Each time the application is updated or customised, deployment is much faster, less costly and IT managers are able to ensure license compliance from a single location. Spatial data is maintained in a similar fashion, preventing conflicting and “unauthorised” versions from becoming unintentionally integrated with the master data set.

Telecommunications Industry
There are many facets of the telecommunications industry, ranging from 3G broadband wireless to Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology on existing copper wire networks. The specific area within the telecommunications industry is not critical to the application of the spatial ASP, for the content and delivery model is conceptually identical.

Disaster Prevention
One specific example of leveraging the spatial ASP in the telecommunications industry is that of disaster prevention. It is all too common with terrestrial networks to have a disruption of service due to an accidental cut in a cable somewhere along the network. In the United States, each State has a responsible organization that acts as a clearinghouse for information, with the intent to minimize these disruptions in service. These “Call Before You Dig” services operate on the simple principle that, prior to any construction activities, the Contractor must inform the clearinghouse and obtain “clearance” prior to digging in the area. The clearinghouse has access to each utility’s records for the particular area in question, and conducts a spatial analysis to determine whether it is safe to proceed with the construction. By leveraging the spatial ASP model for this particular segment of the telecommunications industry, the utilities can lower the overall cost for each “call” into the clearinghouse. Likewise, the clearinghouse can also leverage the spatial ASP model to reduce its costs of maintenance and operation and increase its response times to calls, as well as the accuracy of the response. In this model, it becomes unnecessary for each state to maintain individual clearinghouses, but leads the way to regional clearinghouse with a spatial ASP as a key component for delivering location-services.

Mobile Wireless Access
Another specific example for the spatial ASP model in the telecommunications industry is the issue of mobile field data access. Telecommunications engineers spend a considerable amount of time in the field performing a variety of activities. Much of that time involves traveling to and from the central office for maps and supplies for repairs. This is a costly and inefficient method of operation. By developing operating procedures that support the delivery of relevant geographic information to the user, in the field, on-demand in real-time, several considerable advantages are realized. A typical field engineer could save over 260 hours per year in transportation alone with a mobile wireless spatial ASP solution, by requiring fewer trips from field operations to field office and equipment yards.

Similarly, by providing real-time, focused spatial ASP solutions to technicians in the field, routing times for emergency repairs and service calls can be significantly reduced. The technician will also have the most current, accurate information necessary to complete the service call on-site, without the need for return trips or involvement of non-field personnel. This not only increases customer satisfaction but also decreases the cost of each service call considerably. There are several applications that have been developed for both the Palm and Windows Pocket PC operating systems for PDA implementation. These applications continue to be refined and with the added functionality of GPS, a multitude of new solutions in a mobile environment will be developed.

Internet GIS Strategy
There are many issues to consider when evaluating a spatial ASP strategy. The primary issues are discussed below in more detail.

Internet GIS for telecommunications

Service Level Agreement
The Service Level Agreement (SLA) is the basic contract between the consumer (organization or individual) and the spatial ASP. This contract provides all of the typical contract issues as well as several that are unique to the spatial ASP model. It is also necessary to understand that, unless the spatial ASP operates their own hosting center, they will have corresponding SLAs with their respective data center partners and communications providers. The terms and conditions of those SLAs will be passed on to the end-users.

There are several features that are recommended in any SLA between the consumer and the spatial ASP. First, and perhaps most imperative, is the stated and guaranteed network availability metric. This is frequently referred to as “up-time” and can range from 98% to 99.999% total time. While it is arguable that “Five 9’s” (99.999% up-time) may theoretically be possible, practicality calls for recognition that this figure is very narrowly defined in most SLAs. It is important to recognize that this guarantee only refers to the network up-time, not the particular application solution that is being accessed. The reasoning behind this important detail is that the spatial ASP has no control over the reliability of a third-party application that they are hosting and delivering as part of their solution. For those spatial ASPs that create their own web-only GIS or mapping applications and deliver them to consumers, there is likely no “product quality” guarantee available. Despite every best effort, application “bugs” still persist and often display themselves at the most critical of times, even in a spatial ASP.

Other aspects of the SLA that should be included and explicit are the details on any technical support / customer service provisions, upgrades for applications, network and hardware, training, integration, credit, ownership and customization services. Many spatial ASP hosting providers will offer these services as additional items, while some may have included them in a packaged solution. The consumer is simply advised to consider these points during the evaluation and comparison of SLAs.

Quality of Service With respect to data integrity, loss and consistency, the SLA should contain specific and sufficient details on how the spatial ASP provider will ensure Quality of Service (QoS) for the contracted solution. This is a significant issue, especially for those spatial ASP providers that intend to deliver their products and applications over the public domain Internet. The basic foundation for QoS is being able to:

  • Minimise the delay in IP packet delivery
  • Minimise variations in IP packet delays
  • Provide capacity with consistent data throughput

QoS becomes a mission-critical aspect in a spatial ASP, especially in an environment that is “always-on” and that provides real-time, focused data. High QoS should be evident to the user by the transparency of the data transmission network. In other words, a spatial ASP that has acceptable QoS should be able to deliver, in a consistent manner, the same or better service as the consumer would get if the application and data were in an local computing environment.

This issue receives a considerable amount of attention and rightfully so considering the stream of well-publicized security breaches at major corporations in recent months. While it is important, security should not have a paralyzing effect on the decision-making process in considering a spatial ASP. The reason is that there is sufficient strategies to implement both physical facilities security and network security and those strategies need to be implemented correctly and effectively.

Physical security for the data center hosting facility is relatively straightforward and very sophisticated. Such preventive measures would include continuous video surveillance cameras and 24×7 guard patrols, electronic security system including fire, smoke and water detection, motion detection and compartmented authorisation and access locks for internal and external doors. Independent power supplies and a rigorous maintenance regime are also necessary to ensure continuity of service in the event of power failure or natural catastrophe.

Network security, while very sophisticated as well, continues to evolved and adapt at incredible rates as technology continues to develop and be compromised. To begin, a combination of hardware and software security measures, at various points of entry to the system should be employed. There are several hardware encryption devices that can deployed at the point of departure from the network firewall. In addition, the standard SSL 128-bit encryption protocols provide sufficient bit-stream security for transmitting data from the spatial ASP to the appropriate consumers. This, combined with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and a robust authentication and authorisation scheme, most spatial ASP data center hosting facilities will be more secure than a customer’s LAN.

All of this security is focused on ensuring that only those authorised to gain access to data and/or applications are specifically allowed to do so, and then only those areas that have been determined by the customer organisation. This security regime is not unlike most corporate WAN/LAN architectures, for example – a clerical employee may not have access privileges to the corporate accounting and salary information but can still gain access to email and other intranet information pertinent to their particular job.

Total Cost of Ownership
All of the hardware, software and latest technology are of little consequence if the strategy for implementing a spatial ASP does not have a compelling economic reality. Notwithstanding recent activities in the dot-com world, there continues to be solid, financially viable strategies to pursue a spatial ASP model, particularly in the telecommunications industry.

One of the most attractive aspects for telecom operators in adopting a spatial ASP is the reduced cost of capital expenditures for location services. By adopting an outsourcing strategy through a spatial ASP, the telecom company can eliminate a significant portion of the overhead costs associated with spatial support services. This includes the costs of software licensing, upgrades, maintenance, technical support, hardware, IT support and high-end desktop PCs. It also includes eliminating the need for backup, archiving, storage and restoration infrastructure because the spatial ASP provider is likely to offer those services. This reduces the telecom operators’ capital expenditures budget to service contracts, a very important distinction.

Finally, an outsourced spatial ASP approach to managing a utility’s spatial data helps to eliminate the redundant costs so common within an organisation. In a spatial ASP, one landbase dataset can service the telecom engineering group, the marketing departments and the maintenance department, rather than having multiple versions and copies of the same geography maintained in multiple departments. Likewise, the telecom company can leverage both economies of scale and economies of skill. Because the spatial ASP hosting vendor maintains a core staff that services multiple accounts, each individual consumer can benefit from shared resources (data center hosting facilities, expert IT and GIS staff, technical support, etc.), and at the same time, reconfigure their internal staffing requirements to take full advantage of the outsourced spatial ASP.

Internet GIS for telecommunications

Internal vs. External Internet GIS
There are considerable merits to outsourcing as well as internalising the functions of spatial ASP services. First, by keeping these functions as an internal business unit there is the satisfaction and “peace of mind” that comes with having “employees” rather than “vendors” managing business-critical information. Also, the resources and infrastructure in many mid to large organizations are sufficient to deliver spatial ASP services comparable to an outsourced vendor. However, in an internal spatial ASP service, there still needs to be the same level of formality and structure in establishing an SLA and other “contractual” standards so as not to fall victim to corporate complacency that is endemic to many companies. If the internal spatial ASP provider cannot fulfill it’s service mission then there is little chance it will realize the full potential to the organization.

In considering an external spatial ASP vendor, cost is the primary driver for most organizations. The spatial ASP provider can leverage economies of scale and “skill” where an internal spatial ASP provider would not be able to do so. Because an spatial ASP vendor provides core services to many different industries and clients, they can spread overhead and infrastructure costs across multiple revenue-generating users, whereas the internal spatial ASP serves only “one” customer. Secondly, an external spatial ASP provider is more likely to stay current with technologies that further improve it’s services to the market. It will continue to re-invest in capital improvements such as storage, servers, security, provisioning, communications, etc. because of competitive pressures, while an internal spatial ASP would likely be allotted an operating budget that does not allow for such interim improvements in technology.

Content Is King
As demonstrated, the fundamental technology for delivering GIS and mapping solutions through the Internet exists, and continues to improve both in quality and availability. Consumers will drive what specific data a vendor will create and provide (ie. Roads, demographics, cell tower locations), and the spatial ASP vendor will need to incorporate and integrate those various data products into the suite of spatial solutions that are offered as a service through the spatial ASP. Many spatial content providers have refined and developed mature processes for delivering their products in the Internet domain. This fits comfortably with the overall business model for a spatial ASP. Delivery of spatial data, on demand, to a wide variety of users through a spatial ASP solution is an encouraging market for the data product vendors. This also provides a sufficient variety of choices for the user-consumer, and ensures that the best-price for best-value is reinforced in the market.

In the telecommunications market, leveraging spatial data products in a spatial ASP solution is a smart strategy. It avoids costly redundancy in base map data, or disparate portions of data that are “out of control” and consequently result in untimely decisions or inaccurate projects. Utilising the same spatial data for all departments in a telecommunication organization not only maximises productivity, it also reduces cost per unit by implementing the spatial data in a spatial ASP. The spatial data content can be customized and delivered to specific user-groups within the organisation yet managed and controlled centrally in the spatial ASP hosting center.

Licensing Considerations
There are several pricing models put forth by spatial ASP vendors, and while the process of refining those models continues, there are two basic options for consumers.

t Fee
This pricing model allows a user to pay a fixed fee in exchange for access to the application solution at any time, for an unlimited amount of time. For simplified accounting purposes, users are typically billed and usage quantified on a monthly or quarterly basis. This is an attractive model for organizations that need predictable costs. It is also useful in organizations that have little fluctuation in their “consumption” demands for the service. In other words, if users will have a consistent demand for the duration of the service agreement and the number of users is not likely to vary, then this pricing model is likely to best suite the needs of the organisation.

Per Unit
This option consists of a base price for an account, and a subsequent price per unit of time, typically in minutes or in some cases, seconds. The consumption record begins when the user successfully logs into the system and continues until the user logs off. This is an attractive option for those organisations with cyclical demand and staffing needs such as project management firms that operate in the telecommunications industry. This allows them the flexibility to leverage the spatial ASP without committing capital resources to maintaining internal infrastructure and operations and still service their respective clients’ needs. The drawback to this pricing option is that is there is no predictability in monthly costs due to the cyclical and temporal nature of the individual user’s consumption of the service.

Obstacles to Profitability
Despite the considerable merits and advantages of the spatial ASP model, there are still several major obstacles that will require radical innovation by industry stalwarts in order for the spatial ASP model and users to realize maximum benefits.

First, software and data vendor licensing of traditional products is inconsistent with the premise of the spatial ASP business model. There are many excellent applications that have loyal users, and these same applications can be delivered through the spatial ASP model. However, these applications cannot be cost-effectively delivered in the spatial ASP model with the traditional licensing model still in use today. The spatial ASP model demands a pay-as-you-go licensing model, one that generates income for the spatial ASP, the ISV, the data vendor and other partners as new consumers are signed-up for the various solutions. The current licensing model requires the spatial ASP to either develop their own applications (which is costly and risky for everyone) or invest significant sums of capital in purchasing licenses and then “re-selling” them as packaged spatial ASP solutions. While this model is popular with software and data vendors, it does not advance the spatial ASP model and technology past the initial early-adopters, and it certainly is not a profitable approach for the spatial ASP provider. This hurts consumer in the end, because if the spatial ASP provider is encumbered by onerous licensing requirements in delivering spatial ASP solutions, then the risk of failure is needlessly exaggerated.

Secondly, most GIS software vendors have an internal “services” division that competes with it’s very own network of business partners. This not only cannibalizes important opportunities for the business partners, but it removes a level of competitive pricing from the consumer’s choice. Along the same line, in order for the spatial ASP to become truly successful, the ISV will have to relinquish absolute control over the customer-vendor relationship. Software vendors are accustomed to being the center of their customer’s universe, and with a spatial ASP solution, those same software vendors are little more than a component to a more extensive solution. This is a hard pill to swallow for most GIS software vendors, but necessary medicine if the spatial ASP model is to succeed in profitability.

It is clear from growing GIS industry support that the spatial ASP model for delivering solutions is a clear strategic alternative for consumers and vendors. Service providers continue to find new and innovative ways to build and integrate various location-based solutions and delivery cost-effective products to a variety of industries and markets. However, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done by the software, database and content vendors to help propel the spatial ASP model beyond early adopters. This includes more favourable licensing models, a true partnership program and a relinquishing of power by the software vendors. The demand, infrastructure, products and content are all present for the spatial ASP business model to succeed in delivering innovative spatial solutions.