When China’s industrial output dropped because of its COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in the first quarter, it caused delays in the equipment vendor supply chain for the wireless infrastructure industry, according to a panel during the AGL Virtual Summit in November, which was moderated by Shama Ray, owner, Above All Tower Climbing.
“It was just a part of the challenges caused by the pandemic, but material shortages have been an eye-opener,” said GM Sadat, chief engineering officer at Concordia Wireless. “We got stuck because we could not find 200-amp breakers. We found used breakers and even looked for them on Ebay.”
The shortage of materials reinforced Sadat’s belief that the United States should bring more of its manufacturing back into the country.
Along with the lockdown in China, which reduced industrial output by 25 percent in February, shipments at the Port of Los Angeles were down 20 percent during the first five months of 2020, according to the Maritime Executive news outlet. With restricted supplies, demand remained steady, according to Sadat. “COVID or no COVID, we were still building,” he said. “The only thing that stopped people was lack of material.”
Black & Veatch saw the effects of equipment shortages slow its work on a number of sites. John Marshall, the company’s vice president and program director, said, “We had less equipment on site and fewer people employed to build the sites. It affected a lot of families across the board because we just couldn’t get the equipment to install.”
The pandemic continues to affect work crews as they travel from site to site. Construction crew members are a matter of concern because of their travel schedules and the work they perform in deploying systems in healthcare facilities, according to Sadat, but he said that Concordia has not had any COVID-19 cases among its workers so far.
“There are challenges because they move from hotel to hotel,” Sadat said. “So we have create procedures for sanitizing rooms and additional safety procedures for working in hospitals.”
Black & Veatch has reduced the amount of travel required of its crew members, relying more on local crews in each state. “We are trying to keep people from traveling,” Marshall said. “We try to keep our field employees from moving state-to-state. We try to keep each person working in the same state or area.”
The pandemic has been hard on the jurisdictions, which have had to alter their practices to allow their government employees to remain socially distant.
“We are seeing a dramatic slowdown on permitting,” Sadat said. “When we do get a permit, then we have to go find a crew. Overall, the pandemic has slowed things down, but where there is a will there is a way.”
On the Brighter Side
Nevertheless, there have been some upsides to the current pandemic. Concordia Wireless, which is based Carol Stream, Illinois, has expanded from operating regionally to nationwide, working with engineers in California, Texas, Massachusetts and Florida, among others.
“We pushed out 100 laptops to our employees and told them to go home, and it has allowed us to become a nationwide company, because we are no longer based in one area,” Sadat said. “Some employees have even moved south to warmer climes without losing seniority.”
Black & Veatch has revisited its business practices that were centralized in its headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas. “In the past, we thought we had to be in the same office to work as a team,” Marshall said. “It has shown us that we can all work remotely and still be effective. It has caused us to question whether we need a large building with all these people in it.”
Not to be forgotten in 2020 is the roll out of 5G radios to cell towers, which has changed the game for crews in a number of ways. Wireless services company are deploying dual-band radios, instead of single-band radios, and are running fiber using a dedicated path to the 5G radios.
“Today’s towers have a 5G, 4G and a little 3G,” Sadat said. “The days of operating a single network are over.”
5G antennas on macrotowers are beefier. With the move to massive MIMO, the industry has moved from four-port antennas up to 12-port antennas. However, with small cells, the reverse is true.
“On the macrotowers, the antennas are getting bigger and bigger, and there are more radios on top because of the multiple technologies that are still in use; but in the small cells, things are getting smaller. Everything is integrated inside,” Marshall said.
Nonetheless, the increase in technologies on the tower and expanded access to various spectrum bands are making tower deployments more complicated today than ever before.
“We are seeing more PIM issues with 5G, so it takes longer to troubleshoot it and get the site on the air,” Marshall said. “We are not dealing with 600 MHz and spectrum in the former TV band, 2.5 GHz, a lot of different frequency bands and technologies. It takes longer to troubleshoot,” Sadat said.
Artificial Intelligence, one of the hottest leading-edge technologies, can teach a camera to spot a cheetah, help a doctor make a diagnosis or allow a car to be driven autonomously. One new platform can now make companies with field service operations, such as telecom services, become more efficient, according to David Simmons, director of innovation and technology for telecommunications at Black & Veatch.
“We are using intelligent automation to be able to learn as we are performing scopes of work for our clients, whether it involves self-performing or subcontracting that work out,” Simmons told AGL eDigest. “Learning how to best connect that scope of work with the best resource depends on automatically accessing a number of factors, such as location, performance, skills and safety.”
The Intelligent Service Automation and Control (ISAC) platform provided by Zinier takes those overall variables into account in real time as work orders pass through it. This aligns the resources with the right work at the right time. By deepening real-time visibility into the field, ISAC anticipates service disruptions through AI-driven recommendations, allowing improved operational efficiencies by automating manual front-office, back-office and field-office tasks.
“AI analyzes the data as a human would, but without the emotion or biases of a human,” Simmons said. “We look at it as an opportunity for our subcontract partners to get consistent work with near-real-time payment, because we close out our work orders so effectively and efficiently. We want to leverage the technology to be their preferred partner. We want to make it easy for the subcontractors to work with us.”
For example, if a crew is deployed to a site and it is missing a part, it can report that back in real time to the Zinier platform, which automatically checks inventory. The component is either dispatched to the site or the crew is diverted to work at a site nearby, while the part is back ordered.
“The whole idea is to keep the subcontractor out from behind the wheel of the truck and working at the site,” Simmons said. “That’s what we all want. We need to be efficient, so the crews are not sitting around waiting. They could spend a week working on the two sites, instead of waiting an extended period of time waiting for the part at the first site and not getting paid promptly for either.”
The services firm is able to keep historic diagnostic data for all telco equipment, ensuring the appropriately skilled technician shows up for each maintenance job. The ISAC platform performs predictive analytics to send technicians to perform maintenance before problems occur.
“We want to make sure the crews have all the components they need to successfully perform their jobs, including the engineering artifacts (drawings, structural analysis), and that they have all the permits in place, the right materials, as well as the necessary documentation to validate the work performance. It should all available in one spot,” Simmons said. “Then you throw in location-based services to be able to evaluation their proximity with the location of the work that we have scheduled at their disposal.”
Figuring out what site is most optimal for the crew to go next relies on a set of data elements used within the platform.
“This is going to prevent folks from having to search for the information, calling back and forth, to do their job,” Simmons said. “Information on how to get the work done is at everyone fingertips.”
AI: the Right Tech, the Right Time
With carriers pressured to deploy higher data speeds over faster, cheaper networks, it is the telecom services companies’ jobs to facilitate the transition to next-generation 5G wireless communications technology.
“We feel like our partners in the field [tower/fiber crews] are at such a disadvantage compared to the people in the office, “Simmons said. “We have to close that gap. They are the critical lynchpin into 5G and the next generation of telecom. In the context, there is so much opportunity from a work perspective that we could do 50 percent more work, which means we could become more efficient with the current workforce and hire additional workers.”
AI is necessary for building out small cells, where the profit margin per site is slim. In the near term, the industry is no longer installing tens of thousands of sites at a macro level annually, but instead is looking at installing hundreds of thousand sites from a small cell perspective.
“The paradigm in which the work is done for small cells has to change, Simmons said. “Technology has to be at the forefront of that change. We can’t do that efficiently and effectively if it doesn’t scale.”
Black & Veatch launched its first round of deployments using the AI tool last month with a team that is performing fiber splicing. In 2020, the firm intends to partner with its subcontractors in macrocells, small cells and fiber to optimize collaboration on the Zinier platform.
“We have to make the transformation,” Simmons said. “With our partnership with Zinier and with the technology we are confident we make a significant, positive improvement throughout the supply chain.”
April 27, 2017 —
Global engineering and construction giant Black & Veatch, of Overland Park, Kansas, entered the cell tower game early on. About 25 years ago, Black & Veatch formed a partnership with Nortel (now part of Ericsson), a telecommunications equipment manufacturer, to help build the Sprint PCS nationwide network. The company provided network site development and construction in nine Nortel markets.
Black & Veatch is known as an engineering, consulting, construction and operations company that specializes in infrastructure development in energy, water, telecommunications, management consulting, government services and environmental markets. The National Center for Employee Ownership ranks Black & Veatch as the 10th-largest majority employee-owned company in the United States. In 2015, the company had $3.2 billion in revenue. Black & Veatch has more than 60 offices in 50 U.S. cities and registered professional engineers in 50 states, with more than 110 offices worldwide and a workforce of more than 10,000.
The company does more than 50 percent of its telecom business work in activity related to wireless network development and upgrades (cell towers). Not a tower owner itself, the company builds them and offers almost every service associated with towers.
“Our focus remains on the construction and services side of the tower business,” said John Janchar, executive vice president of Black & Veatch’s telecommunications business. “We offer a full suite of services to address land use, engineering, construction and other services required to design, build and maintain these critical infrastructure components. We are a nationwide services provider and have several offices located throughout the country. Our local presence allows us the flexibility to expeditiously scale engineering, design, permitting, construction and maintenance services for our clients.”
According to Janchar, Black & Veatch has performed services including land use, engineering, and construction for no fewer than one out of every four cell towers in the United States. Janchar also said that, although Black & Veatch does not provide maintenance services, it provides structural analysis programs to support the continuing upgrading and modification of cell sites.
The company performs most of its preconstruction services in-house. It uses a mix of self-perform and subcontractor professionals to provide construction services. Black & Veatch uses include Ericsson, Nokia, Corning, CommScope, Rosenberger, Communications Components, Radio Frequency Systems, Advanced RF Technologies, Solid, Sabre and Fujitsu equipment.
Janchar points to Black & Veatch’s reputation of being a valued partner within the telecommunications industry. “Black & Veatch has the local presence, contacts and licensing credentials to provide the local touch necessary to evaluate site conditions, meet with local officials and expedite performance nationwide,” he said. “Our team has deployed or modified more than 100,000 communications sites across the country, allowing us to partner with all of the major carriers to deliver turnkey sites nationwide. We also offer our site-development expertise to serve the needs of state and local government agencies. We have experience working directly with state and local jurisdictions or as a subcontractor to the major land mobile radio vendors, as well as with land mobile radio and private Long Term Evolution (LTE) systems used by utilities.”
Robust Cell Tower Business
Janchar is enthusiastic about Black & Veatch’s client portfolio, which he describes as robust and diverse. The company works with all carriers, from the large global wireless carriers to the smaller regional carriers. “We focus on four client segments that use cell site networks: public carriers, private carriers (such as utilities and enterprise), public safety and integrated infrastructure,” he said. “In fact, our client portfolio continues to expand as the industry evolves and the need for data drives network upgrades.”
The strategy Black & Veatch uses to find cell tower clients is simple: Meet your existing clients’ expectations every day, and employ a dedicated and experienced sales and marketing team that achieves growth by seeking new business opportunities through strategic marketing initiatives, industry events, advertising, sales and networking.
“Our sales professionals have years of experience in the telecommunications industry and are experts at recognizing needs, challenges and drivers in the market,” Janchar said. “It is through this knowledge and proactive approach that our sales and leadership teams are able to continuously build strategic and mutually beneficial relationships with existing and potential clients. Additionally, we rely on our entire team of professionals to ensure our clients’ needs are met and that we maintain a world-class reputation in the industry.”
From 2011 to 2016, Black & Veatch partnered with Samsung Mobile to perform a large U.S. network upgrade program for Sprint. Black & Veatch provided a full suite of wireless development services to support Samsung in its vital multiyear program implementing Network Vision, Sprint’s cutting-edge network evolution plan.
Deploying new technology on a competitive first-to-market basis is always a challenge, but in this case Samsung faced another challenge because the existing network had to remain in service while Samsung deployed its new equipment. Black & Veatch helped solve Samsung’s complex challenge in Sprint’s network upgrade deployment with the ability to scale turnkey expertise on a national basis. The company’s established processes, tools and techniques for engineering, procurement and construction deployments provided for effective and efficient execution from project initiation throughout the life cycle, without interrupting the existing network operation or damaging project sites. There was no disruption to Sprint’s existing customers.
Janchar said he believes a challenge facing the tower industry involves continuous modifications of existing structures that have been required to reflect new technology upgrades. Structures are exceeding design capacity, thus becoming more difficult to modify. “The backhaul demand is another big challenge in the telecom industry,” he said. “Backhaul is critical for offering carrier customers the speed and high capacity for the all-you-can-eat data plans and performance. The need to increase capacity in the backhaul network in a cost-effective way is a top priority that drives the building and expansion of fiber networks to accommodate the demand.”
Despite the challenge, Janchar sees the cell tower business booming for Black & Veatch in the foreseeable future. “As the industry continues to proliferate, there will be continued technology development (5G) requiring equipment upgrade to the existing macro sites, and growth in capacity using densification with small cells and oDAS (outdoor distributive antenna system) networks. Several of our other business lines will continue to mature and develop as our clients work to keep up with the insatiable demand on their public and private networks.”
Janchar said that Black & Veatch expects sustained, substantial growth over the next several years, aided by the continued convergence of wireless and wireline technology and the carrier evolution to 5G. In addition, the company will continue to invest in private network markets, such as mining and transportation, as these industries continue to look for security, reliability and ways to integrate distributed networks. “The need for data is driving technological evolution and communications network upgrades across all market segments,” Janchar said. “One of Black & Veatch’s core strengths is that we are organized to align with market conditions and challenges of today and those yet to come.”
Meanwhile, Black & Veatch focuses on creating innovative solutions and developing the services that are in demand to build state-of-the art networks. “Not only do we have the solutions to meet our clients’ needs, we also possess the tools, resources, experience and relationships to tie it all together and move toward the inevitable — a future where all things are connected and communication is as essential an infrastructure resource as energy, water and transportation,” Janchar said. “Because our experience spans various markets, we have the ability to dive into the segmented and unique challenges that our clients face, and also to see the evolving industry from an overall perspective and to prepare for this future integration.”
Mike Harrington is a freelance writer in Prairie Village, Kansas.
From 2011 to 2016, Black & Veatch partnered with Samsung Mobile to perform a large U.S. network upgrade for Sprint. The Black & Veatch processes, tools and techniques for engineering, and procurement and construction deployments provided for effective and efficient execution without interrupting the existing network operation or damaging project sites.
Black & Veatch provided Samsung Mobile with a full suite of wireless development services to support Samsung in a multiyear program to implement Sprint’s Network Vision.
Top safety and operations executives representing the wireless carriers, tower owners, OEMs and turnkey/construction management firms met with officials from the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) at the Telecommunications Industry Safety Summit, late in October, in Dallas to examine leading indicators that compromise safety, and collaborate on best practice solutions.
The goal of the event was to bring the industry together to talk about the trends, the root causes and develop some mutually agreed upon goals to make the industry safer, according to Todd Schlekeway, NATE executive director.
“Topics that were discussed at length included developing more consistent pre-hiring practices, a consistent process for vetting contractors and subcontractors and standardized safety programs. This would raise the bar and make sure that everyone is more in tune with a higher level of safety conscience,” he said.
Bringing all factions of the industry together at the safety summit was an important step because each company, on its own, can only do so much to improve their safety culture, according to Martin Travers, president, Telecommunications, Black & Veatch.
“We have come to the conclusion that the best way to improve the safety performance on our projects would be to encourage improvement of the safety performance of the whole industry, because so many of us employ tiers of subcontracts that are often interchangeable, from the program managers and the prime contractors, Travers said.
“There needs to be a guiding set of principles with regard to safe tower construction that are accepted practices so that the industry will be consistent in its application,” he added.
Meeting participants agreed to work together to achieve sustainable safety improvements, forming the Wireless Industry Safety Taskforce with 27 members that will explore ways to meet the objectives outlined at the summit.
“What was really encouraging about the summit was a very strong common understanding and acceptance that the proposed process made sense and they wanted to participate. It was easy to come to a consensus regarding what should be done and how it should be done,” Travers said.
Companies represented at the Telecommunications Industry Safety Summit included: Alcatel Lucent, American Tower, AT&T, Bechtel, Black & Veatch, Crown Castle, Ericsson, General Dynamics, Goodman Networks, Jacobs Telecommunications, Mastec Network Solutions, Motorola Solutions, Nokia Network Solutions, SAI Communications, Samsung Telecommunications America, SDT Network Services, SBA, Sprint, U.S. Cellular, Velocitel, Verizon Wireless and WesTower.
The proposed nationwide 700 MHz broadband public safety network to be established by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) promises to bring together companies from the different areas of the wireless industry, including cellular carriers, utilities and public safety entities. In one of the first of such alliances, wireless engineering giant Black & Veatch is teaming with public safety insider The Digital Decision (TDD).
Together Black & Veatch and TDD will offer governance, planning, network design, financial modeling, program management and implementation services to state and local governments, Paul Miller, Black & Veatch vice president of telecommunications, told AGL Bulletin.
The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 created FirstNet as an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to establish a single, nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network. Congress earmarked $7 billion for network deployment, as well as $135 million for new state and local grants administered by NTIA.
The development of a nationwide public safety network is a daunting goal that requires unprecedented cooperation between various state and local first responder organizations, not to mention cellular carriers, utilities and equipment vendors.
“The initial money, $7 billion, earmarked for this project will not fund an all-new build out for public safety,” Miller said. “[Public safety] will have to leverage existing assets, maybe from the carriers and utilities or other entities in addition to what they already have.”
Along with infrastructure sharing, public safety may achieve advantages in sharing the 700 MHz D-block spectrum with cellular carriers and utilities, especially in rural areas. Public/private partnerships are being studied as a possibility.
“The key is providing priority access for public safety communications. They will want and need that. Will that be tolerable for carriers and utilities?” Miller said.
Partnership Unites Industry Players
Black & Veatch brings to the partnership a focus on the other side of the planning process — doing asset inventories of the current public safety communications infrastructure and analyzing how public safety communications can best be transitioned to an LTE broadband network.
“Initially, we will need to perform conceptual design, some planning and estimating of what it will take to get them from what they have today to the FirstNet nationwide broadband network,” Miller said. “We are trying to leverage our nationwide footprint that we have achieved through working with the carriers. Also we have experience and skills designing and implementing robust, hardened networks with utilities and public safety.”
With states having the choice whether to opt in or out of the FirstNet, one of the first orders of business will be to convince them of the benefits of being part of the network. States and their local partners will need to be informed about financial, regulatory and general network factors. TDD has experience developing and negotiating statewide public safety broadband network governance models among all 57 counties and the State of New York, as well as among the State of Louisiana and Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
“TDD has helped different entities, including states, set up agreements and MOUs that will support interoperable networks. They have that background and we felt that was a gap for us at Black & Veatch,” Miller said. “With FirstNet’s near-term focus on the state planning process, we felt like we needed a teammate that had that experience from putting organizations together, the governance models and outreach. TDD is known for those activities. We thought it was a good team to put together.”