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Supporting Remote Team Collaboration with Field Operations Platforms

By Rob Tymchyshyn

Field operations platforms offer workflow and collaboration tools for wireless construction programs, which is even more important now that many employees are working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’re all Zoomers now. Even before COVID-19, remote collaboration tools like Zoom, Teams and Hangouts were becoming more prevalent for both personal and business use. With the abrupt shift to remote work dictated by the pandemic, these platforms have become indispensable for day-to-day business operations and will most likely continue to play a role as many continue to work from home.

However, these platforms only go part way toward addressing the challenges associated with managing wireless construction projects. The business of deploying crews to build towers and small cells is loaded with risk because of the tight coordination required across multiple in-house and external players to complete projects on time. Inaccurate site details, weather conditions, missing tools and materials, dependencies on third parties and other challenges combine to stack the odds against a successful deployment. And if this wasn’t already complex enough, the balancing act has become even more precarious with the new constraints imposed by COVID-19.

Wireless Is Leading the Way

A recent survey by NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, found that almost 75 percent of their members have had some employees move to remote work while still managing the same workload.

“This has crystalized what most of us already knew,” said Todd Schlekeway, NATE president and CEO, “which is how essential our industry’s services are. NATE member companies have crews on the front lines deploying and maintaining communications infrastructure that enable new forms of collaboration technology, such as tele-health, distance learning and other emerging services.”

Moreover, the volume of work, while facing some near-term delays caused by permitting and site access challenges, is expected to ramp up significantly. CTIA projects that over 700,000 small cells will need to be built by 2026 to keep up with the increased demand in broadband communications service for consumers, businesses and connected devices.

Because of this, many wireless construction companies have been rethinking how they use digital technology to manage their business operations. Legacy applications and spot solutions, such as spreadsheets, email, accounting systems and basic timekeeping tools, are not optimized for the additional complexity that comes with managing a high volume of small cell deployments, let alone the challenges associated with moving to a remote workforce.

Emerging Software Solutions

The good news is that an emerging category of software called field operations platforms, such as the FieldClix software platform, are designed to address the unique requirements specific to managing field operations for wireless construction (discussed in more detail in the October 2018 issue of AGL Magazine).

These software platforms come with many “out-of-box” capabilities that can be rapidly deployed with minimal configuration, including crew scheduling and resource management, workflow management, mobility tools, budget tracking, timekeeping and payroll automation, material and asset management, invoice management, and reporting and analytics.

Typical benefits that come with field operations platforms include enhanced planning capabilities to help minimize project risk, standardized processes to improve team alignment and collaboration, real-time visibility into field activities and daily updates on project status and costs. Companies deploying these platforms are seeing field productivity improve by up to 30 percent and a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in profit margins.

Adapting to the New Normal

Dan Denda, the president of Ironbo, made the decision a few years ago to move his company onto a field operations platform. He is seeing unanticipated benefits now that his employees must work remotely. “With FieldClix, we’ve been able to move full steam ahead without missing a beat. The software allowed us to establish standardized workflows across the organization, which gives our employees immediate access to the tasks, information and documents they need to manage their day-to-day responsibilities.”

Before the spread of COVID-19, Dan had as many as 30 people working in his offices. He’s now down to a skeleton crew of six to eight. “I’m not sure how we would have handled the sudden shift to remote work without a field operations platform,” Dan said. “Like many others, we didn’t anticipate this situation and, fortunately, we had an emergency backup plan we didn’t know existed.”

For Dan Kunz, the COO of Crosslink Wireless, COVID-19 has created new logistical complexities in managing his field deployments. “We have to limit our crews to two people per truck and are facing issues in remote locations because of limited access to food and lodging,” Dan explained. “We also need to make sure our crews have access to personal protective equipment and are following new safety protocols while traveling and on site.”

For Kunz, these challenges emphasize the importance of planning vs reacting. Kunz’s project managers are making use of their field operations platform’s scheduling and dispatch capabilities to plan deployments in more detail and make sure their field crews receive automated updates with timely information about locations, site access details, required equipment and safety protocols.

Kunz’s budgets have also been affected by these new operational constraints. “You’ve really got to manage your costs, or the project will get out of control very fast,” Kunz said. “Using a tool like FieldClix, we get automated reports from our field teams, so we know what job they’re working on and can see how that project is doing compared to where they’re supposed to be.”

Dan has started to make use of this data to request additional fees from his customers. “We’ve been able to take our jobs, show our increase in project costs, go in and sit down across from our clients and get to the actual price we need in order to do these jobs to stay profitable.”

Keeping an Eye on Safety and Costs

Kent Smith, VP Operations at Wireless Services, is heavily focused on indoor and venue-based wireless infrastructure installations and is seeing new revenue opportunities open up as a result of the increased need for remote monitoring and security across the health care landscape.

It used to take Kent’s accounting team over 45 days to close their books. These delays affected his ability to manage the financial health of these complex programs.

“We’ve now moved all our financial workflows out of email and into FieldClix, which allows us to maintain tighter control, even with our teams working across the country,” Kent said. “With COVID-19, it’s even more important that we get a handle on our costs, and FieldClix is giving us this information daily and providing increased visibility into many areas where we can begin to improve our efficiency.”

Even more important is the need to maintain a safe working environment for his field crews. Kent relies on his field operations platform to provide visibility into their daily movements. “Our field teams are moving in and out of many venues, including hospitals, and we rely on the real-time data to help us communicate with them and watch out for their safety while making sure they have information at their fingertips to comply with both CDC and venue protocols.”

Accelerating the Adoption Curve

A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that construction has lagged behind other industries in the adoption of digital tools. They estimated that productivity gains greater than 30 percent are possible with the adoption of these new technologies.

Schlekeway said he believes the current pandemic will accelerate the move to digital tools. In fact, NATE currently offers the STAR Initiative mobile app to support site safety audits and is transitioning to virtual courses for a number of their training and educational programs.

We still don’t have a handle on how long COVID-19 will be around, and more importantly, the degree to which remote work will become a norm in the long term. One thing we know for sure is we will all be managing through this uncertainty for the foreseeable future. Field operations platforms offer a proven solution to help maintain stable and profitable business operations with distributed teams working in the field, in the office and from home.

Rob Tymchyshyn is a cofounder of FieldClix, a field operations platform designed to manage wireless construction programs. Contact him at his email address or visit www.fieldclix.com.

Taking the Mystery out of SaaS Implementation for Field Operations

By Rob Tymchyshyn

SaaS platforms offer a significant opportunity to increase productivity and profitability for wireless construction — but they represent unknowns for organizations looking to deploy them for the first time.

The photo had to be somewhere. On the camera, or maybe on a phone. The entire crew was jammed into the break room, combing through hundreds of pictures taken during a three-day antenna upgrade.

The closeout package couldn’t be completed without a clear image of the Alpha Sector RRH serial number, and the business owner couldn’t get paid without it.

After three hours of jpeg diving in the digital abyss, it was becoming painfully clear the photo did not exist. Which meant only one thing: Two crew members who were originally assigned to start a new project instead had to drive 400 miles, check into a hotel, coordinate access to the previously completed work site and climb the tower to take the missing picture.

The carefully planned, low-margin project would now show a loss.

Across the wireless industry, the business of deploying crews to sites to construct towers and small cells is jam-packed with risks that can delay projects and eat into margins. Missing tools and materials, incomplete site details, weather conditions, dependencies on third parties and many other variables all combine to stack the odds against a successful deployment.
These challenges will increase dramatically with the anticipated wave of small cell deployments, which contain the same milestones and critical dependencies as macro builds, but in a shorter time, that shrinks the margin of error required to get to profitability. CTIA’s survey, “The State of Wireless 2018,” projects that wireless carriers will need to deploy roughly 800,000 small cells by 2026, a 550 percent increase over the 86,000 that exist today.

SaaS to the Rescue?

This emerging challenge to effectively manage an increasing volume of small, yet complex, projects can be supported with enterprise software platforms specifically designed to bring alignment, standardization and orchestrated workflows across an organization.

These platforms offer the potential for a significant increase in productivity, in contrast to relying on legacy, spot solutions — such as Excel, databases, basic timekeeping tools, accounting platforms and digital cameras — that many organizations have deployed over time.

A growing number of these enterprise platforms are available in the cloud and can be purchased on a monthly subscription model, often based on the number of users. These software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms bring many advantages over conventional software offerings, including limited up-front investment, eliminating the need to maintain IT infrastructure, continuous upgrades with new features, integration with mobile devices and access from anywhere via web-based portals.
However, many SaaS platforms have been designed to support standard functions generally required across multiple industries, such as customer resource management (CRM) or sales pipeline management and accounting systems. Adapting these platforms to suit a company’s industry-specific processes flows, user interfaces and data structures can be a costly, time-consuming and frustrating experience.

Going Vertical

The good news is there are a growing number of vertical SaaS solutions, such as FieldClix, designed specifically to address the unique requirements associated with niche processes and industries, including managing field operations for wireless construction.

These vertical SaaS platforms come with many out-of-box capabilities that can be deployed with minimal configuration, includingcrew scheduling and resource management, workflow management, mobility tools, budget tracking, timekeeping and payroll automation, document management, material and asset management, vendor and client invoice management and reporting and analytics.

And let’s not forget photo checklist management.

By making use of these vertical SaaS platforms as a starting point, it’s possible to accelerate the implementation timeline, adoption curve and path to benefits because the processes and features already align with the way your organization works.
Immediate benefits will include increased visibility into the operational status of projects, real-time visibility into job costing and the ability to improve project margins. Standardized processes and improved alignment and collaboration capabilities will put your teams in the best position to succeed while managing an increased volume of work. In addition, tighter controls for financial processes to help manage client- and vendor-related cash flow.

The ability to track and report on operational and financial metrics at a much more detailed level sets the stage for measuring and improving performance across several key areas, including increased field productivity (20 to 30 percent), reduced repeat site visits (5 to 10 percent), accelerated cash collection by (10 to 20 percent) and reduced material and asset costs (10 to 20 percent).

That All Sounds Great, However…

The good news is you’ve determined it’s time for a significant change to the way you operate your business. The tipping point could be a desire to expand into new markets, streamline and standardize operations or coming to terms with the fact that your finance platform can’t provide timely and accurate details on the financial health of your projects. Most likely, it’s all of the above, along with your long-held desire to get more control and a better view of your day-to-day operations.
However, your resources are stretched thin; the business is running at max capacity; and you’re pulling together the funds to upgrade part of your fleet. And there are so many unknowns that come with a software deployment at this scale. How long will it take? Will your employees see this as a distraction, just another imposition and beyond the already hectic daily workload?

When will you start to see benefits?

These are all legitimate concerns, especially if your organization hasn’t been through a software deployment that requires participation across multiple departments. The paradox is that many of the current challenges and distractions — the day to day fires — can be mitigated through the enhanced planning, coordination, visibility and risk management that come with a field operations platform.

So how do you get to the other side of the chasm?

A Road Map for SaaS Deployment

The truth is, this much more than a software deployment program. The decision to move into a SaaS platform is a commitment to transform the organization. The software will not only enable the transformation but is a bold statement of intent to your organization that the old way of working is no longer sustainable.

And this transformation will not happen overnight. If managed correctly, it is a gradual process that brings continuous improvement over time without overwhelming the organization.

At FieldClix, we’ve been through this journey with our clients many times, and have developed the following checklist list of critical success factors to set the stage for a successful SaaS deployment and hopefully demystify the experience by providing a sense for what to expect as you make your way down the road:
·      Demonstrate commitment and engage your employees
·      Identify and empower the program manager
·      Stage the rollout in manageable bites
·      Set clear expectation for roles and measure compliance
·      Train close as possible to going live
·      Pilot and run parallel to your existing systems

Demonstrate commitment and engage your employees: It’s important that employees across the organization understand that leadership is fully aligned and committed, that that they understand what is expected of them.

Regular communications should take place during the implementation program, starting with an email, or preferably a town hall type event (in person or via phone) to lay out the timeline and goals for the implementation program, together with the expectations for everyone’s participation.

Offer an open-door policy to make it clear that you value their feedback. Many of the best ideas for enhancements and ways to successfully deploy the software will come from your employees. By engaging employees in the journey, their natural resistance will be replaced by enthusiasm for the new platform and help set the stage forthe program’s eventual success
Identify and empower the program manager: Your implementation project manager will play a critical role in planning and executing the project — herding cats, if you want to get technical. As part of the initial communications, make it clear that they are empowered to gather data and schedule everyone’s time for mission-critical activities, especially end-user training.
In some cases, this may be your software partner, who often brings experience managing organizations through implementation projects. They will also need the backing of company leadership to help navigate the organization and get timely access to the data and other insights required to set up and configure the software platform.

Stage the rollout in manageable bites: All businesses are the same, and all businesses are different. When you’re selling, you want to emphasize the latter: the quality of your team, your track record of delivering on time and the shiny new fleet and test gear. When it comes to software implementation, the safe bet is to align with industry-standard processes.

There will be an organization pull toward replicating the unique processes, estimating models and tracking spreadsheets that have evolved over the years. These are the processes you’ve established and that your team is comfortable with. Some users will show up with a wish list of exciting new features and processes. Others will see an opportunity to finally bring operational discipline by designing complex workflows to track activities down to a granular level.

Because of these different tendencies, there is a risk of generating a large volume of requirements deemed necessary to be configured before the SaaS platform can be deployed. In extreme cases, this analysis paralysis will add unnecessary complexity and delays to a timely deployment of the new platform.

Just jump into the pool. The water doesn’t change temperature, no matter how long you stare at it.

One of the keys to success along the transformation journey is getting to the start. Staging the deployment into small, manageable steps will get you past the starting line while also minimizing the deployment risks. Many assumptions about the need for certain features will fade away, and new ideas and paths forward will open up as the organization grows into the tool.
A gradual rollout can also help control the pace at which an organization is required to adapt to change while also managing their day-to-day responsibilities. Over time, as a deployment and training cadence is established, new features can be rolled out as seamlessly as a new Chris Rock special on Netflix.

Set clear expectation for roles and measure compliance: Remember the time you were forced to switch hotel rooms in the middle of a business trip? Even though the hotel offered an upgrade to a suite with a fruit basket and balcony overlooking the pool, it was still more of an aggravation. At least that’s how it felt.

People will embrace change, but not before resisting it. That’s just human nature.

When deploying a new software platform, end-user compliance can have a significant effect on achieving the projected benefits. Your time-to-benefit can be accelerated through clearly defined business policies and expectations for individual roles:
·      Project managers will have access to enhanced operational tools — such as scheduling calendars, budgeting interfaces and streamlined material ordering — to help plan and manage risk, which means an investment in time up front pays off with improved crew deployments and less time spent firefighting.
·      Field crews will spend more time working from the mobile app, which can support timekeeping, insights into their schedules, work order details, expense management and photo checklists. The adoption process is typically painless as they are generally grateful to have access to the information and only need to be reminded to keep their phones accessible and charged.
·      The finance team will spend more time in the new platform, managing financial processes and generating executive dashboards and reports. This represents a shift from relying solely on the accounting platform to do their job. In some cases, they will be moving among applications, but the payoff is the ability to generate more insightful reports with less manual data manipulation and access to a much broader set of client data required to support efficient client invoicing and vendor payments.
·      IT’s role will change, with a focus on managing the creation of new users, configuring laptops and phones, and in some cases, keeping track of company-owned assets.

Most SaaS platforms will provide reports to help monitor compliance and identify those users who may need an extra nudge now and then to align with the new mode of operation. The ability to track operational metrics also creates an opportunity to give incentives and reward employees for positive results. Lastly, encouraging your early adopters to help pull others along into proper use of the platform will also help overall compliance.

Train as close as possible to going live: End-user training is one of the most critical activities in preparing for a successful software deployment. This is the first time many end-users will experience the new software, and it often is only opportunity to prepare them before you go live.

A good training program offers an overview of the new processes, software interfaces, expectations for compliance, and the ability to work directly in the new tool. To help with retention, train as close as possible to go live to get the program off to a healthy running start.

Pilot and run parallel to your existing systems: There’s only so much risk you can plan for in trying to orchestrate a seamless transition from one mode of operation to another. Going live in a new platform inevitably brings issues and challenges: a phone app was not installed, access for a key user was configured incorrectly. There will be more than a few forgotten passwords and other problems as employees become accustomed to using the new software.

The good news is that there is a proven two-step approach you can deploy to minimize these challenges and accelerate the adoption cycle.

Before going live, take a week to put the new platform configuration through the paces in a live, but low-risk area. As an example, for photo checklists, trial the capability on an existing project to iron out any wrinkles before rolling it out to the rest of the organization. For crew deployments, have one of your seasoned project managers schedule and deploy his crews for a few days to validate they receive the correct notifications and work orders.

In other cases, such as timekeeping, run your existing system in parallel with the new approach for one to two weeks. This approach provides a safety net that will allow your employees to adjust to the new processes and mitigate the risks of missing timecards. It’s important to track compliance daily and remind everyone when they skip a critical step, such as deploying a crew without a work order.

By the end of the parallel trial, end-user compliance in the new platform should be sufficiently robust to give you the confidence to turn off the legacy system.

A Final Word of Encouragement

Be patient, be persistent and be open to changes. The desired results will arrive, and in many cases, they will surprise you. There will be bumps in the road, but with a measured and structured approach, they can be minimized.
The good news is that you have just taken the first step in changing the way you operate your business and are on the path to increase visibility, operational discipline, scalability and improved profitability.
And no more missing photos.

Rob Tymchyshyn is CEO and cofounder of FieldClix, the provider of a field operations platform of the same name designed to help improve operational and financial discipline for complex field construction programs. His email address is [email protected].

Twenty Years on the SaaS Front Lines: What We Learned and Where We’re Going

By Gary D. Williamson

Effective software as a service (SaaS) not only brings stranded data into a single, mission-critical information hub. It also correlates the data with other SaaS providers, databases of record, financials, procurement, materials and other critical data sources.

In 2019, it is hard to imagine a global marketplace without the software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery model. SaaS companies generated $80 billion in revenue in 2018, according to Gartner, and forecasts predict an 18.5 percent increase in 2019, pushing that total to nearly $95 billion.

From start-ups to enterprises, the telecom industry is locked into a massive digital transformation as the majority of on-premises resources move into the cloud. And the advantages of the subscription-based SaaS model are clear: increased financial certainty, improved speed to outcomes, vertical scalability and decreased operational and infrastructure costs, to name a few.
But it wasn’t always cloud this, cloud that. It would take several key technical and strategic breakthroughs for major enterprises to move past their mistrust of the cloud.

With nearly 20 years of frontline experience as an SaaS company providing information management and project deployment solutions for the telecom industry, OneVizion has had a front-row seat for the evolution of SaaS.

The following information details our experiences and lessons learned as they relate to major milestones in the development of SaaS, from its painful birth to the watershed moments that sparked innovation and progress. Then, we move on to the future of SaaS.

Remembering the Bad Ol’ Days

Just before the turn of the century, the burgeoning SaaS model faced two major problems: a lack of trust from established enterprises and technology that trailed behind the rate of innovation.

For executives considering this unproven model, the thought of handing over the keys to their data, security and IP to be managed in the cloud — outside of IT’s protective firewalls — was considered preposterous and taboo. And in the early days, we were told so in more than one boardroom meeting, with IT departments leading the pushback.

Ever so slowly, attitudes began to change as some enterprises began to experiment with application service providers (ASPs), an important precursor to the SaaS model.

These ASPs were typically used for targeted, non-mission-critical tasks on the periphery of a business. But change has to start somewhere. In many ways, the limited use cases for the ASP model helped open the door for more widespread SaaS acceptance.

Customers were more inclined to give ASPs a shot because they still owned and managed their specific database without bringing any other data into the mix.

But this single-tenant, hosted architecture meant that scalability was limited without incurring massive expenses, similar to the limitations of on-premises solutions.

So, although ASPs did much to help remove the stigma on cloud-based service delivery, they didn’t do enough to answer the technical needs of an industry experiencing massive levels of innovation. As the wireless industry exploded, storage space and processing power were at a premium. Emerging applications required more space than ever before, and all of those new cell sites came with terabytes of documentation and photos that needed to be meticulously tracked.

Imagine this: You’re a telecom services provider in the early 2000s, and word comes down from your carrier that you need to add a new task to an application used at 30,000 sites associated with your national build. To do this means opening up several thousand spreadsheets to add two new columns (forecast and actual) to represent the task. The entire rebaselining process could take several weeks (if things were to go smoothly).

In the interest of staying on the safe, tried-but-true path, enterprises accepted the status quo — and the lengthy timelines and financial uncertainty that came with it. It would take some bold thought leadership and some revolutionary technology to ultimately break the mold.

SaaS Hits Its Stride

Attitudes began to shift in the early 2000s with the emergence of cloud-based applications, most notably customer relationship management (CRM) applications. These companies made use of a solid, prescriptive business model, one that was repeatable and that used a shared infrastructure while keeping customers’ data separated (the now-embraced multitenant model).

With a focus on CRM and sales management functions, they managed to survive many of the IT objections by simply being positioned so far in front of that team and their concerns. Their subscription model provided well-understood and acceptable price points, and this perfect storm of factors sparked massive growth.

As these and other applications, such as travel and expense management tools, softened perceptions against the cloud, our country saw an unprecedented surge in mobile capabilities, broadband access, internet security, advanced browsers, robust application programming interfaces (APIs) and other technology breakthroughs that also helped changed the industry’s mindset and drove record sales in the SaaS segment.

At OneVizion, we already had the utmost confidence in the SaaS delivery model from a business and strategy perspective. But projects still needed time to architect the database, computing  components and storage components. The missing factors were speed and scalability.

This changed with the maturity of Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2012 and the development of cloud databases robust enough to run large enterprise applications supporting functions like national program management. This watershed moment allowed us to host our application through Amazon’s technology infrastructure and take full advantage of their processing, storage and security capabilities.

The result? Exponential reductions in the time needed to spin up new instances from days to minutes and the money needed to store terabytes of data created by wireless and broadband deployment projects across the country. Monthly costs per terabyte fell dramatically, as did costs for web and application servers, database servers and similar services.

That same re-baselining issue we described earlier? Now customers can easily scale up database capacity in minutes for as long as necessary before scaling back down — no more costly physical server orders for a temporary need.  No more opening thousands of spreadsheets to implement new columns. Just add the task and the application adds the rest.

AWS gave us scalability, flexibility, security and redundancy. Ever had a server crash knock out critical operations for hours, if not days? On the slim chance that a hosting region in AWS goes down, taking one of our client’s instances with it, then we’re back up in 15 minutes in another region.

AWS truly changed the way we do business and how we interact with customers. We can easily stand up a customer in one-tenth of the time it took 10 years ago, providing them with affordable data storage and collaborative, consistent workflows that cut operational and technical costs dramatically.

Looking Toward the Future of SaaS

Despite the great and ongoing leap in the technology supporting the SaaS model, there are still problems and risks associated with it in the here and now.

For companies like OneVizion that are positioned as comprehensive information centers that link together your mission-critical business units, the need for rapid and easy integrations is paramount. Many enterprises now make use of multiple SaaS providers; thus, communications and connections among these providers on behalf of the enterprise must be straightforward and simple.

Fortunately, most of these technical issues are being addressed at a rapid rate with robust APIs, JavaScript object notation (JSON) connectors and other means of connecting disparate technologies. Furthermore, emerging technologies like artificial and machine intelligence will continue to provide new SaaS challenges and opportunities at a steady clip.

Ultimately, the biggest problem facing our industry in 2019 is not just a question of technology, but the synthesis of that technology with the expertise and strategic thinking needed to point that tech in the right direction. What good does a powerful tool like AWS do if you are unable to parse through its hundreds of tools and services? With our guidance, clients receive the full benefits of the cloud infrastructure at a fraction of the cost.

We are positioned to handle problems that do not exist today. This is represented by our SaaS model, which is built around one important question “What does done look like?”

For many, hearing “you never know what done looks like” is a hard pill to swallow. We view done as an acceptance of the fact that you don’t know how big, fast and complex things are going to get. It is impossible to know all the parameters until the work begins, so we designed a system that allows you to expand your information architecture to capture emerging parameters and industry shifts.

Everyone can solve the simple problems now. But the complex ones usually devolve into a mess of meetings, emotion and scattered spreadsheets.

OneVizion is helping by not just bringing all of your stranded data into a single, mission-critical information hub — it’s also taking an enterprise’s data and correlating it with other SaaS providers, databases of record, financials, procurement, materials and other critical data sources.

So, as you examine how SaaS can help your organization thrive in the age of digital transformation, it is important to understand two things about a potential vendor: How will their tech stack improve your quality of life, and how deep is the expertise behind it?

Gary D. Williamson is vice president of telecommunications innovation at OneVizion. Visit www.onevizion.com.

Operational Efficiency Holds the Future of Small Cells

By Don Bishop, Exec. Editor, Assoc. Publisher, AGL Magazine

Software as a service (SaaS) designed to help those who deploy small cells to manage their projects — with millions of points of failure — has scored 300 to 400 percent improvements in project completion time, from start to finish.

Photo by Don Bishop

Companies that want to deploy small cells, distributed antenna system (DAS) networks or macro towers, or that need to maintain the assets they have in the field can make use of the cloud-based life-cycle platform offered by Sitetracker, according Brett Chester, the company’s vice president of marketing.

Referring to predictions that mobile network densification will spur the construction of 800,000 small cells, Chester said the wireless communications industry has reached an inflection point, beyond which methods used to manage the construction of 100,000 macro towers will not serve for small cells. He spoke with AGL Magazineat the DAS & Small Cells Congress, where Sitetracker had an exhibit.

“The amount of effort required to build a tower is the same amount of effort that needs to go into a small cell project,” Chester said. “But, it needs to be done at a much larger scale with a smaller budget and fewer resources. Sitetracker enables companies to achieve operational excellence and derive benefits from a market that they couldn’t access before. They are able to allocate the correct resources to projects, enabling them to provide turnkey readiness and recognize revenue much faster.”

A Software Tool for Cell Projects

Chester attributed customers’ operational improvements to Sitetracker’s software platform, which he said extends fully from the planning phase to growth and maintenance. A software platform is a major piece of software, such as an operating system, an operating environment or a database, under which application programs can be designed to run. Previously, and to some extent even to this day, tower and small cell builders used Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet database tools to manage their projects, Chester said. Because spreadsheets are not live, collaboration is difficult, he explained.

“As a result, you’re never able to be ahead of the project,” he said. “You’re always looking in the rearview mirror. Imagine for a second that you’re driving down the freeway trying to navigate only by looking in your rearview mirror. It’s not easy. You’re basically using different mile markers to navigate forward. It’s practically impossible. And now multiply that across the number of projects that we have in place at any point in time. We have gone from a world with a lot of resources where there wasn’t as much you had to do, to a world where there is much more to do with far fewer resources.”

“We have gone from a world with a lot of resources where there wasn’t as much you had to do, to a world where there is much more to do with far fewer resources.” — Brett Chester, vice president of marketing at Sitetracker

The cloud-based software from Sitetracker allows users to access the platform with a native iOS and Android mobile app,” Chester said. “A user can access all Sitetracker functionality, from tracking assets to checking project status. Users can see drawings associated with assets and project milestones in bulk across all projects or at the most granular level of a specific project or asset,” he said.

Intersection Media installed this LinkNYC kiosk in Manhattan, New York, one of 4,000 such kiosks deployed with support from Sitetracker’s cloud-based software platform. Photo courtesy of Intersection Media

The software allows users to upload drawings, mark them up and collaborate live on those drawings, Chester said. “Imagine it’s a permit or a contract or even just a drawing of a macro. You can actually mark it up and show something that needs to be done and, in live time, collaborate on those things faster and more efficiently,” he said. “After all, the efficiency of your team is how you’re making money in most of these cases. If you’re a carrier, delivering fantastic products to your end-users is what the goal is, as well.”

Chester explained what it means for Sitetracker to be cloud-based. “All we’ve done is to install our software in a remote location, in the cloud or the internet, and it lives and breathes there,” he said. “You’re communicating with that location rather than it being on the premises. The same functionality that you would have anywhere else is now available through that remote location, delivered to all of your devices, instantly. It syncs seamlessly and in real time. That’s the way modern software as a service (SaaS) is designed — to enable its end-users to use it efficiently and easily, and at a low cost.”

Small cell developers have seen three times to four times improvement in the time it takes to go from planning to turnkey release and closeout, Chester said. Because those gains have been obtained prior to legislative changes that could make the permitting processes faster, Sitetracker expects further increases in speed when those changes occur, he said.

Track Performance Indicators

The software makes it possible to formally apply key performance indicators and see in real time whether project completion is trending in the right direction, according to Chester. He said companies can map and create milestones to work toward, allowing them to work more efficiently within their departments and with their vendors. The Sitetracker platform lets users customize reports on the fly, he said, adding that workers can keep their bosses informed and companies can communicate reports to shareholders.

Chester said the company is seeing 2.7 million to 3.2 million changes made in the platform on a weekly basis. That represents activities tracked against all manner of different projects, he said. Tracking the activities mitigates risk for those deploying projects.

“Imagine that you are working with 15 vendors,” Chester said. “Each of these 15 vendors has 100 tasks. Consider that 15 times 100 equals 1,500 steps necessary to complete one of those projects, and you can start to see that you get millions of points of failure across multiple projects.”

Intersection Media used the software when it deployed 4,000 Wi-Fi kiosks in Manhattan, New York, Chester said. “They replaced nearly every single payphone with a LinkNYC kiosk and did that seamlessly,” he said. “They had 27 million possible points of failure. That’s not even taking into account how angry New Yorkers can be if you upset their traffic flow. When you have 27 million points of failure in a project that’s repeated over and over again, you’re bound to make a mistake without safeguards in place. The Sitetracker solution prevented that from happening, which is a huge win for Intersection.”

Although the software helps with small cell deployment, Chester said Sitetracker isdesigned to help companies complete repeatable tasks, including those included in DAS, macro and fiber-optic cable projects. “We started out servicing the telecom industry, so we know it really well,” he said. “We have a specific department that works to enable business transformation over telecom, utility and media companies because we’ve seen these types of efforts over and over again. We know what works and we know what doesn’t. We are happy to consult, offer suggestions and make recommendations based on what we’ve seen so potential users can improve their business processes and put the right foot forward when they’re working with Sitetracker.”

The idea for Sitetracker software began when the company’s founder and chief technology officer, Tim May, noticed the deployment problem that Verizon Communications had. Chester said May built a solution for Verizon, and ever since, Sitetracker has been growing. It manages billions of dollars’ worth of Verizon’s assets. Sitetracker has tens of thousands of Verizon users in its platform every day, making project updates.

“We have partnered with most of the ecosystem surrounding Verizon and, tangentially, other carriers work through us through their providers,” Chester said. “It all started with one person’s vision and we built it from there. Our customers’ success is our success. As their businesses keep growing, we scale with them to make them increasingly efficient.”

The next DAS & Small Cells Congress is set for June 10–12, 2019, in Las Vegas. Visit www.dascongress.com.


Sitetracker Raises $24M to Advance SaaS

By J. Sharpe Smith, Senior Editor

Sitetracker, maker of software for managing high-volume infrastructure projects, has landed $24 million in Series B funding. The new investment round, led by existing investor New Enterprise Associates (NEA), brings six-year-old Sitetracker’s total funding to $35 million. Other investors include Wells Fargo Strategic Capital, Salesforce Ventures. The financing will be used to develop Sitetracker’s product and global expansion.

In the wireless infrastructure industry, Sitetracker provides a software platform for designing, deploying and maintaining macrotowers, small cells and fiber plant. Sitetracker’s platform, known as software as a service (SaaS), is used by Verizon, SAC Wireless, Tower Engineering Professionals and Advantage Engineers among others.

“Instead of providing an Excel spreadsheet with things to do on a project, we enhanced their workflow, so they can deliver projects on time and under budget,” said Brett Chester, Sitetracker’s VP marketing. “To do that, we automated the process. A project manager can set up alerts and triggers. Why can’t we empower our managers with the latest technology? In some instances, we have seen speed to turnkey increase 300 percent.”

Project management is becoming more and more of a challenge as the wireless industry shifts into high gear building out the hundreds of thousands of small cells that are estimated in the 5G future.

“We think about everything from the project or asset manager’s viewpoint in this ever-growing world of growing project volume, where we are moving from a three hundred thousand macrotowers to a projected nine hundred thousand small cells,” said Chester. “It’s roughly the same number of steps to complete a small cell. If we are going to get to that volume of small cells for 5G, then we need to find some efficiencies to allow for those high-volume projects to be completed.”

SaaS, which negates the need for on-premise software, has been growing rapidly for the last five years into a $181 billion industry, according to Sebastian Lambert, CEO of FinancesOnline. Chiefly because of global trends in cloud computer hosting, Cisco’s Global Cloud Index projects that 73 percent of all workflows will be delivered as SaaS by 2020.

“There are all manner of benefits that come with SaaS for different professionals,” Chester said. “Compared with on-premise software, SaaS allows more to be accessed anywhere at any time. It is updated more frequently so users are on the cutting edge of the latest technology.”

For mobile workers, such as the tower technicians, SaaS can be accessed easily and seamlessly by virtue of the fact that the software platform is hosted in an online datacenter, allowing workers to make live updates that can be seen in the home office almost instantaneously.

“The efficiencies are unparalleled. No one can keep up to date if there is a lag of three or four days, which is the way most on-premise software works,” Chester said. “One of the only issues that gets in the way of SaaS adoption is complacency. Workers are used to doing things the same way over and over for many years. SaaS has disrupted that paradigm.”

SaaS is evolving, as well. According to Lambert, 2017 was the year when software developers stopped producing systems that serve a single operation or single industry in favor of horizontal platforms that apply to multiple ecosystems.

“What does this mean? SaaS applications are targeted but not industry specific; and they are built to integrate with a large number of third-party solutions,” Lambert wrote.

SaaS products adopt Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning solutions in 2018, according to Lambert, becoming a “disrupting influence not only on the SaaS market but on the way we do business in general.”

J. Sharpe Smith
Senior Editor/eDigest
J. Sharpe Smith joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 29 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with  Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence.