Building Blocks: How GIS Provides the Foundation for a More Efficient Fiber Optic Network

By Ian Fitzgerald

The utility industry is changing at a rapid pace. The huge amount of real-time data being exchanged within an organization, coupled with the impending need to expand systems for future smart grid developments, is a game changer that requires utilities to operate, maintain and manage even more complex two-way communication networks. But many are finding that their current infrastructure cannot support the number of data points on the network or the constant back-and-forth flow of data.

Like telecom companies that need large amounts of bandwidth to deliver service to thousands of customers, utilities are increasingly turning to a distributed fiber optic network to handle the increased communication loads on their networks. Of course, implementing a fiber network is no small feat: utilities need quality, fiber-specific tools to make the upgrade accurate and cost-effective. This article will detail the technology needed to plan this network, features to look for when considering this solution, and finally a real-world example that presents these recommendations in practice.

GIS: The brain of the network
One of the first steps to ensuring a utility has a network that can handle 21st century smart grid technologies is to implement an enterprise GIS system. While some organizations still document their network with file-based technology – even storing information in non-congruous formats like CAD drawings, spreadsheets and Visio diagrams – this disparate data management process leads to a disjointed view of the network. Data cannot easily be shared internally to support the rest of the business.

In contrast, an enterprise GIS is the one-stop shop for managing and analyzing a smart grid communications network. It is the brain of the entire system, providing a centralized repository for asset information and inventory. It also serves planning and engineering purposes by transforming data into actionable information, such as getting cost estimates of material for extending the communications network or setting up new network connectivity based on a new smart grid driver. It also helps utilities get asset management, planning and engineering information into the field, as well as from it, for a complete overview of the system. This offers field crews mobile support and access to the information they need when performing a task.

The benefits of an enterprise GIS system make it easy to understand why the market for it has grown rapidly, and why GIS has become the foundation for other smart grid network solutions.  

Building on GIS infrastructure
The amount of information traveling across a utility’s network is staggering, and it shows no signs of slowing as new smart grid technologies come online. More devices will share information with the network and more data will need to be analyzed to support decisions that maximize operations and reliability. In order to ensure that the quantity of data does not slow down or disrupt service and operations, many utilities are opting to implement high-speed fiber optic networks.

The good news is that there are tools to help make the implementation of a fiber network more efficient by relying on the existing GIS infrastructure. A GIS-based fiber tool provides more accurate planning of the new fiber network and seamless management of the entire integrated infrastructure.

In addition to this core benefit, it is important to know the most relevant key features when considering state-of-the-art fiber optics management software.

Fiber features
Fiber optic networks are challenging and potentially resource intensive projects to design, manage and over which to maintain quality control. During the design phase, a utility has to be certain that any layout accommodates existing data requirements and has the flexibility to incorporate future requirements and system specifications.

Starting with the initial planning stages, a fiber network management tool maps, plans, designs and manages a fiber optic network. As previously stated, this tool is ideally based on GIS technology to accurately document and assess the location and connectivity of the networks. By harnessing the full power of a robust GIS, the fiber management tool provides an intuitive way to design, maintain and manage the new network.

Furthermore, the fiber tool provides documentation to accurately direct the contractor to construct, splice and label aspects of the system. For quality control purposes, a utility should also have knowledge of decibel loss for every fiber, cable and circuit to ensure construction is completed to contract specifications.

Once a network is in place, operators should be able to easily enter, update and understand the connectivity of a network. They should be able to quickly establish and inspect connections within splice enclosures, patch panels, optical network devices and passive optic network splitters used in fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) applications.

When a problem inevitably occurs, an optical time domain reflectometer (OTDR) outage trace can rely on the optical distance data stored in the fiber network management tool to precisely pinpoint the location of a fault or trouble area. This allows for faster crew dispatch and shorter restoration times.

Editing proficiency tools enable utilities to quickly reconfigure patch panels, equipment and racks at a network location, or expand their communications network. It is also useful to be able to analyze data with a comprehensive reporting tool, documenting the connectivity within splice enclosures, patch panels and circuits, as well as the available capacity in the system. With the click of mouse, a reporting tool can issue splice reports, splice schematics, patch panel reports, connectivity reports, circuit reports and OTDR trace reports, saving valuable staff time and resources.

Truckee Donner: Seeing the big picture
Like many utility companies, Truckee Donner Public Utility District in California was looking to upgrade an existing network to prepare for new smart grid infrastructure. A high-speed communications network was needed to deliver the increasingly large amount of data reliably and on-time.

Implementing a single-mode fiber optic system was determined to be the optimal solution, both for security and bandwidth. To avoid the high costs associated with poor fiber optic design, Truckee Donner sought a product that could accurately design and model an advanced fiber optic system and utilize the existing GIS infrastructure.

The utility selected Telvent’s Fiber Manager to help with the planning, design and implementation of the fiber optic network. The planned 400,000-foot land fiber network needed to interconnect five electrical substations and 42 water stations within the Truckee Donner data center over a span of approximately 65 square miles.

The product’s intuitive visual interface helped Truckee Donner design everything from the actual path of the fiber optics – whether overhead or underground – to the assets the fibers would be tied to, such as overhead pole lines, underground communication lines or live electrical conduits. Additionally, the seamless, map-based data format helped Truckee Donner determine the best transition points, splice locations, cable sizing and circuit paths.

Truckee Donner experienced improved efficiencies and cost savings with Fiber Manager almost immediately, beginning with the design and planning stages. Being able to accurately determine all of the materials needed for the project, from cable footage to the number of splices required for each specific splice box, proved to be invaluable. By the time the project was ready to be bid, the utility already had a clear understanding of the materials required to build the system and how much it was going to cost.

As the fiber optic network was being built, the advanced modeling and reporting capabilities provided Truckee Donner’s contractors with critical information so that they could work as efficiently as possible, ensuring that the final result would meet the project’s objectives of a cost-effective network that could reliably handle the evolution of smart grid data.

Keeping an eye on the future
Utilities that choose an enterprise GIS will not only see immediate network management improvements, but will also have the foundation in place for future smart grid infrastructure. A fiber management system that is built on a GIS platform can meet the increased demand for more accurate and complex data exchanges, as well as the many unforeseen opportunities brought about by the smart grid.

Published Monday, November 5th, 2012

Written by Ian Fitzgerald

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