As millions of dollars begin flowing to rural cooperatives, municipal utilities and internet service providers as part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) broadband initiative, gathering data on existing fiber or other types of communications networks will be a crucial first step. Capturing this data in a GIS database will give incumbent service providers a boost in developing comprehensive plans.

Many providers have drawings, splice diagrams, and other network data but lack a centralized environment to consolidate and host all of this data. A geographic information system (GIS) solution is an excellent starting point to map out the network overlaid with an accurate listing of components and assets already in place. This step will enable a plan for deploying entirely new assets or, in some cases, identifying where the existing network is fully utilized.

The planning process for many providers will center around the densification of the service area. These densifications will drive decisions on which technology makes the most sense to deploy, wireless or fiber, while also determining the ultimate cost of the last mile.

For providers in the preliminary estimating phase, parameters can be set around features that are of most interest. Options may include looking at either microwave or fiber backhauls. All-dielectric self-supporting (ADSS) or lashed fiber-optic installations may be best suited for deployment on distribution system poles or underground systems, or an optical ground wire (OPGW) deployment might be the better alternative along transmission structures. Either option can be showcased within a GIS database to easily allow providers to compare the differences in cost.

The geospatial views can also enable easy decision trees for other system investments, such as whether a fiber build-out might allow nearby substations, central offices, or other vital facilities to be upgraded with new communications systems. GIS tools can increase the value proposition of deploying to a range of solutions.

Tools to Help With Difficult Decisions

Even with the help of outside funding, some providers will still need to weigh cost justification in considering how far to extend fiber or wireless networks.

The goal of the RDOF program is to come up with solutions that will serve the maximum number of areas possible with the available funding. In some cases, for example, fiber or wireless devices might only bring service to two or three households along a 10-mile stretch. While this investment may not be cost justified if viewed on its own, it might become feasible when combined with a route or area that will bring service to more densely populated zones located a few miles farther away.

GIS functionality will be invaluable in visualizing those win-win scenarios. The different types of fiber architectures and microwave paths can be evaluated side by side with robust planning tools that account for the age and condition of physical assets that may be needed for deployments, including antennas or other devices.

With fiber deployments, most of the expense will be bucketed in the cost of installation, not in materials and equipment. For projects where much of the build involves attaching fiber optic cables on poles, there may be options to upgrade aging physical assets in conjunction with those deployments. Many distribution assets, including those located within rural America, have seen an ever-growing percentage of their poles needing to be replaced. The prospect of a fiber network build-out could help ease or justify that expense.

A holistic view of the capital investment needs could result in other decisions as well. For example, it may make sense to build a portion of the network underground, aerially, or perhaps even a microwave path. The highly complex range of decisions will ultimately result in most networks being built in a variety of ways — not 100% one or another.

Most providers are likely to be weighing a number of factors in order to determine the option that makes the most sense for the path being analyzed. Utilizing GIS tools will help providers make more accurate and informed decisions.

The economic analysis enabled by robust geospatial tools will be essential in determining the most cost-effective routes, technologies and methods of installation. This rapidly advancing functionality will be a vital component in developing the correct broadband solution for any underserved area. Front-end planning will undoubtedly drive success for providers that won blocks in the RDOF auction.


The process of building out networks under the RDOF can be enhanced by using geospatial tools that enable rural providers to integrate large volumes of data into a single, easy-to-use database.

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Brian Sanfilippo leads fiber business at Burns & McDonnell. His experience includes managing and developing robust telecommunications solutions at locations across the United States.