If you work in the utility industry, you’re probably busy with the deployment of 5G and likely facing numerous challenges. If you don’t work in utilities, 5G is unique. Unlike conventional cell phone towers, individual 5G antennae, or “nodes,” are attached to individual utility poles to provide data and cell service.
Assets on utility poles are called “attachments,” including all power and communication cables, equipment, and now, 5G nodes. Each utility pole, in a sense, tells its own story—who owns it, what it’s made of, its capacity, which companies have attached equipment and lines to it, who approves each attachment, and whether each existing (and new) attachment is up to code.
Each pole has its own dimensions, surrounding environment, and structural capabilities. Gathering and documenting all that information about each individual pole is necessary for changes and new installations. Yet documenting utility pole data with traditional methods can take a while and is prone to inaccuracies.
Alden Systems of Birmingham, Alabama, is handling the challenges of 5G deployment with speed and efficiency thanks to the Alden One® web-based platform, a database that holds utility infrastructure data so that all stakeholders—utility pole owners approving the attachment, attachers deploying new services, contractors, and regulators—are all on the same page.
The Alden One software has evolved past only documenting utility poles properly with accurate field measurements to assigning and completing work (such as make-ready work) through their Task Agent™ app. Through its end-to-end process automation, Alden One frees up experts to spend their time applying their expertise rather than moving data around.
How Our Utilities Are Built, Now and In the Future
Changes to existing utility infrastructure, such as power, cable, and internet, demand successful collaboration between all stakeholders. Inaccuracies in measurement data slow down projects and duplicate efforts. But the complexity of 5G deployment adds new challenges, including a significant increase in the volume of work, that require successful and efficient collaboration based in accurate, up-to-date data for each utility pole or other asset.
If you’re not familiar with how utilities are deployed, here’s the basic process. A company that wants to attach something to a utility pole files a request with the pole owner. Then, the pole needs to be reviewed and measured to make sure there’s space for the attachment, that the pole can handle the structural load, and that other existing attachments are up to code. If space needs to be made for the new attachment, that requires make-ready work and involves other parties. And before installation of any attachment begins, the asset owner must approve the new equipment.
However, 5G deployment is more complicated than people might think. “It’s not just the node itself, but all of the wiring to get that node connected to the network,” said John Sciarabba, CEO of Alden Systems. “Instead of one cell tower, you now have a bunch of mini-towers attached to utility poles. This means that the network isn’t just getting faster, but much denser with all those nodes, which provides better coverage.” This also means that companies are trying hard to get their attachments up as fast as possible, to gain competitive advantage, and there often aren’t enough field resources to get it done timely.
“So with 5G you really need two things: better data and more data. The carrier installing 5G needs good data to submit and the pole owner needs a complete and accurate picture for approval to ensure safety and reliability will be maintained. That’s what drives data collection. We saw an opportunity to rapidly speed up that process while also making it far more accurate with our software,” Sciarabba said. “That’s how we see the future of utility infrastructure management.”
Documenting Utility Poles with the BLK3D: A Messy Business that Alden Cleans Up
Here’s the situation: you have a utility provider (e.g. a cell and data service provider) who wants to attach a 5G antenna node to a utility pole. The first step in that process, for Alden, is to go find the pole and document it.
“The traditional method is to use a hot stick—a fiberglass measurement tool that can be raised and lowered to measure a pole and attachments,” said John McConnell, VP of Business Development at Alden. “You would document that on paper. This process, of course, leads to inaccuracies and different interpretations of data, and it likely means you’ll need to go back and re-measure something to get it right.”
Alden, however, found a better way forward when McConnell came across the Leica BLK3D at a trade show that he said was “beyond the kinds of shows we usually go to, but it was worth it.” The BLK3D is a handheld imager that, simply put, measures the objects and structures in any photo that you take using the device.
“For us, we knew the BLK3D could really help us out in the field if it can accurately measure utility poles and all of the necessary components to a successful attachment,” McConnell said. He found that the BLK3D documents utility poles and attachments so well that Alden installed their app, Task Agent™, on their BLK3D imagers for utility field technicians to use.
Task Agent™ was developed specifically for utility infrastructure documentation, and it is a unique app. It allows field techs to input dimensional data for each utility pole they need to measure in real-time. “Before the BLK3D, you’d have two people doing the measurements manually, but now you can have one person out there with a BLK3D and a hot stick as a backup,” said Chris Burton, a Field Project Manager with Alden.
“Now I go to the pole and simply take pictures with the BLK3D,” Burton said. “The data that the BLK3D collects—pole height, attachment heights and the distance between them, guywire placements and other components for structural load analysis—goes right into Task Agent™, which then gets back to our data engineering team.”
This standardized collection of data for a utility pole has many positive effects on each project, including successful collaboration. “When a utility service provider, a pole owner, or a state agency in charge of utilities utilizes our solution, they and everyone they work with gets access to that dimensional data,” McConnell added. For Alden, the BLK3D enables them to document utility pole infrastructure quickly and accurately, which means they can get to more poles in less time while also getting more (and better) data—fulfilling their original mission.
What using a platform like Alden One can mean for 5G deployment (and for other attachments to utility poles), is that there is a unified dataset of all assets, plus their components and characteristics. “We’ve always had data, but never at this volume and at this high quality. The real issues have become 1) how do you manage the data and 2) how can you use it to take action? Now that we can capture more data than ever before, it’s even more important to be able to take that data and use it to inform field activities as well as big picture business decisions,” McConnell said.
When all of these processes and roles work in harmony, Alden One’s centralized platform enables companies to easily share information with stakeholders for a 5G deployment in a specific region or area and have a far more efficient, speedy process.
So, What Happens to the Data?
One of the challenges of documenting utility pole data is that it isn’t a standard set of data. It changes from project-to-project and from pole-to-pole, so utility providers and other stakeholders can’t use a simple, standalone program to document the data.
“In the utility industry, somebody will attach something eventually, “said Chinniah (Baski) Baskaran, Enterprise Architect at Alden. “Any program to document utility pole data needs to be configurable for each user or company.” He explained that if you go out to document a pole and find there is enough space to attach whatever is needed, then you can simply go ahead and attach once approved. “But if there isn’t enough space, that’s a whole different set of data that goes into Task Agent,” Baski said.
All the data that gets collected for each pole may need to be modified during a project, but the data needs to be uniform and useful for each stakeholder. “That’s where the BLK3D comes in,” said McConnell, “because it can capture all the dimensions, even if we don’t think we need them at the time. And it goes even beyond that. If you’re deploying in a historic district, you need to make sure it fits the guidelines for appearances. You have financial concerns, right of way, or have locational concerns about 5G density per population, that must be considered when attaching equipment.”
Basically, no two deployments of 5G are identical, and neither are deployments of existing utilities because each pole is different, each location has different requirements, and each project requires different kinds of data. But with Task Agent running on the BLK3D, anyone using the device can configure which types of data to document for specific purposes. The bonus is that because you can measure objects within each BLK3D picture, field technicians can capture data that may not be needed right away but will be useful in the future because the raw BLK3D data is also saved in the Alden One® platform.