Many utilities face a similar problem. For many decades, assets, components and equipment have been designed as hard copy drawings/computer-assisted design (CAD) files on legacy systems or stored on static spreadsheets that quickly became outdated.

These decentralized and disjointed systems often create problems when engineers need to locate appropriate base drawings to work from, or when operations and maintenance workers need accurate and up-to-date information on any of the thousands of assets deployed across their service territories. With relevant design information spread over multiple data sources, a relatively small update such as replacing a microwave radio or retiring an outdated piece of equipment in a rack, can lead to a cascading problem. Many drawings for the old equipment must be located, reviewed and updated. The new equipment needs its own set of drawing updates and the inventory system needs to be updated to account for extra spare parts for the new installation. This static model with varying sources of information requires a significant investment of time for each minor asset update.

Technology to the Rescue

Geospatial databases are proving to be a powerful solution to these issues. Not only are they enabling conversion of vital documentation into centralized formats that can be more easily maintained and tracked, they also hold the keys to better planning and budget forecasting.

Geospatial databases like Esri’s ArcGIS or ConnectMaster can provide integrated planning from a broadened perspective, showing how individual projects fit into larger ecosystems of assets. When viewed this way, the data becomes more than just mere line items on a spreadsheet.

Conversion of vital system documentation and other information is becoming much more seamless today, in part because these geospatial databases have developed interfaces to allow efficient, high-volume updates.

Programs Move Across Silos

As technology grows more sophisticated, power infrastructure upgrades may be integrated into a program spanning many traditional utility silos. For example, a transmission line rebuild might become the perfect opportunity to add fiber that can extend a private wireless communications system utilized for controls of new information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) assets. Or consider the potential of leveraging a substation expansion project to upgrade legacy IT equipment to the latest standard to better support the larger substation investment.

By pulling all projects in each program portfolio into an integrated geospatial database, a new perspective can be gained on how funding for one project may be leveraged to achieve multiple and mutually beneficial goals for a minor, incremental cost.
The key is creating a living database that documents upcoming projects with archived historical records of older projects that can be referenced later for confirmation of various specifications. What size shield wire was used on the last transmission line build? How many fibers were installed on the last backbone cable and how many are still available? These and many other questions can easily be sorted out.

Many utilities have traditionally relied on a combination of knowledge from the field, spreadsheets, Visio diagrams and Keyhole Markup language Zipped (KMZ) Google Earth files as repositories of information. Unfortunately, this system causes confusion, rework and headaches when operations staffers begin dealing with inevitable conflicts between data sources and begin the process of reconfirming what documentation is accurate.

With geospatial databases, smart links can be created between assets to automatically update attributes for the given assets when changes are made to any component or piece of equipment. This can even apply to maintenance records such as when the filters were last replaced on the routers at a site or when the DC battery system was last replaced.

Technical Manager Perspective

It is common among telecom managers today to prioritize the retirement of leased telecommunications lines to improve quality of service, reduce annual recurring costs (ARC) and minimize potential system downtime caused by reliance on third-party telecom infrastructure. These managers often try to leverage parallel substation or transmission line projects to avoid funding projects solely out of their yearly budget allocation.

Telecom managers frequently are left looking at what is often a large list of sites with leased circuits that they need to retire. With constrained budgets, it is hard to prioritize which sites to build to first. This is where they typically opt to invest in different field area network (FAN) technologies to help spread funding across multiple sites located geographically close to each other. However, this presents its own set of challenges. If these decisions are made without the benefit of a centrally located database, they may be seeing only part of the picture.

Propagation studies and the list of leased sites are typically pulled into KMZs to evaluate the best possible locations for new microwave towers. The goal is to find a tower location and height that reaches the maximum number of sites with leased circuits and reduces the ARC as much as possible. This KMZ does not consider how far away these new microwave towers are from the rest of the existing network backbone (either fiber or microwave), nor does it account for other substations, reclosers or capacitor banks that are not on leased circuits. These unaccounted-for assets would likely benefit from having a FAN network extended to them, which could open up new opportunities, such as distribution automation.

With an integrated geospatial database, these sites can be easily displayed, with all the needed attributes such as substation voltage or ARC evaluated next to the other transmission and distribution assets in the area. This helps quantify the benefits of different FAN solutions, enabling easy evaluation of the pros and cons of each location with respect to existing infrastructure.

Technology to Solve Multiple Use Cases

For one West Coast utility, Burns & McDonnell integrated ArcGIS as the primary system of record for a telecommunications system site design and upgrade of equipment interconnectivity. This program enabled us to conduct a comprehensive assessment that documented and updated information at many key sites within the operational telecom system.

Though ArcGIS is a geospatial program, its support and ability to integrate databases allowed us to track equipment assets and develop one-line diagrams based on earlier diagrams produced on Visio and CAD systems. We also saw benefits for asset management and planning. Items like battery systems now include an accurate geographical representation of locations along with other key data on make, model and system capacities.

All telecommunications assets on-site can now be quickly and easily identified, along with installation dates and status. For this utility, as well as many others, integrated geospatial technology systems hold the promise of moving past many operational management issues that have long been obstacles to efficiency.


Utilities can play key roles in rural broadband expansion, and geospatial systems will provide the data needed for planning.

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Nick Mannoni specializes in helping Burns & McDonnell clients develop long-term planning and deployment of various IT/OT technologies such as multiprotocol label switching (MPLS), dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM), and other wide area network (WAN)/field area network (FAN) technologies for utilities.