Navigating the network lifecycle: Planning

Welcome back to our blog series on the journey of building fiber networks from the ground up. In the first installment, I shared the whirlwind beginning of our endeavor to support The West Coast Company (WCC) in their nationwide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) buildout. Today, we delve into a critical phase of the network lifecycle: planning.

You may have heard the phrase, “proper planning prevents poor performance”. While this is certainly true, we found it incredibly difficult to even find the time to create a plan. At the beginning of the project, our focus was to simply survive the day!   

This created a culture of solving the problem at hand, knowing there was another one around the corner. While we were intellectually prepared for this fact, it did take a toll emotionally. I have often referred to our collective experience at WCC as a “grind” or “constant pounding”.   

At the time, almost nothing came easy. The technology we had built was certainly not prepared for the velocity expected in terms of design throughput of homes passed. It was a constant balancing act as we attempted to support hundreds of users, changing requirements, and aggressive deployment timelines. With a smattering of success came a deluge of failure! 


Planning was officially out the door.

We were full on in execution mode. I can remember one meeting where planning would have prevented a significant cost overrun. During this meeting we were tasked with identifying how we could simplify the supply chain in terms of materials management while also providing opportunities to support more efficient underground deployments. WCC was struggling to acquire enough conduit required to support the projected build plan which was going to create a significant delay to the construction schedule.   

After an initial review, we determined the design requirements called out several diameters of conduit to support the build. While it was certainly true that a 1-inch conduit would suffice given the design cable diameter, the distribution of varying diameters of conduit within the network caused several complications. It required WCC to purchase multiple rolls of varying diameters and required the construction contractor to ensure this availability in the job site when the specified diameter was called out in the construction drawings. As one can imagine, this created bottlenecks in material ordering, storage, and deployment, not to mention challenges with construction.   

Once we evaluated the issue, I suggested we simply replace the varying diameters and standardize the use of a single 2-inch diameter or 2 x 2-inch diameter ducts for all underground network deployments. This would account for 95% of the ducting requirements across all markets. In addition, it allowed for greater volume discounts since they would be purchasing a 2-inch duct size for all markets, not to mention the construction efficiencies that would be gained as well. The customer responded with “that is genius but prove it!


And so, the work began!

I immediately made a copy of the design that had been created to date and used GIS to evaluate the veracity of the idea. The evaluation required merging all cable sizes into structure to structure and pole to structure segments to understand the distribution of cable diameters across the network footprint.   

Taking this distribution and evaluating the diameter of the cable against the duct fill ratio specified by the manufacturer, we were able to determine the idea had merit and qualify out those areas that required additional study. Once approved, we automatically updated the conduit sizing in the design and modified the cable design to support the standardization efforts. While there was a lot more that went into the process, our customer had a solution within 4 days of problem identification.


What does this have to do with planning?

Well, this is just one example. Had we challenged the design guidelines created by the external vendor with the engineering team, conduit and cable manufacturers, and the customer; we would have reduced material cost, design engineering, and time to construction from the outset. Planning is essential to the success of any at-scale buildout.   

While at times it seems that there is no time to plan, conversations around problem identification and their solutions are inevitable. Wouldn’t you rather satisfy these issues before mobilization and without the urgency of the new clouding your judgment? I am not naive enough to believe that all issues can be telegraphed and solved prior to the onset of the project, but it is certainly helpful!  

The conduit issue mentioned above can be attributed to a lack of alignment across stakeholders to meet the identified goals of the customer. Outside of construction related issues, I would be remiss if I didn’t speak to planning within the larger context of OSS. As service providers begin to tackle large, at-scale buildouts, the focus at the time is getting to the finish line. Unfortunately, at this point in the network lifecycle, the finish line is getting the network built with little to no focus on how the network will be operated in the future.   

Decisions at the planning stage can significantly reduce the cost of network operations, both in terms of physical and logical network management. In the next installment, I will go into more detail on the necessity of considering how you might manage the network as part of your planning phase to ensure consistent operations and customer satisfaction, not to mention increased revenue growth on the P&L!  

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