Experts tout digital twins for dual wins in harsh fiber environments

FIBER CONNECT, ORLANDO, FL — Amid ongoing fallout from devastating Hawaiian fires and a historic tropical storm in Southern California, experts at Fiber Connect convened this week to address the need for new approaches to fiber deployments in challenging environments. Particularly, digital twins for network infrastructure emerged as a key strategy for service providers.

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical network that can be created to simulate its performance, test different scenarios and identify potential issues before physical production.

Scott Casey, VP at CycloMedia Technology, a mapping system software company, said he has seen “a pretty significant trend” over the last three or four years toward operators using a digital outside plant environment “as much as possible.”

Especially in harsh environments, using a virtualized digital plant means sending less people out in the field into harm's way. “It also means that you can do some of the work that you might have had to do during the winter, you can do it from the desktop, anytime,” added Casey.

Just about every company that CycloMedia works with has a digital system, whether it’s through computer-aided design (CAD) or geographic information system (GIS) software, according to Casey. However, the data quality contributing to these systems is lacking.

Michael Measels, VP at 3-GIS, estimated that while 75% to 80% of service providers today have a view of their network in a digital state, he would guess that 0% have a view of their network that is “in line and exactly as it is deployed in the field."

Erin Thomton, head of technical operations at Google Fiber, admitted that her company belongs to that statistic. Thomton heads operations in the central region of the U.S., where she has to do “equations” to figure out the best deployment methods considering harsh weather conditions across the states for which she’s responsible.

The result is typically a network built partially underground and partially aerial. Then, when things break, “which unfortunately, they will,” she said, Thomton needs to plan ahead so that service can be restored as quickly as possible.

“Plants are going to degrade over time, you're going to have general wear and tear,” she said. “And there's a lot of building happening, so you also have other people coming into that right of way. For me and for our organization to stay ahead of it, having a preventative maintenance plan is really important.”

Part of that preventative maintenance plan is continuously working to better the Google Fiber networks’ documentation, she added.  

The segments being built today in Kansas City, for example, are going to be documented better than the segments originally built in the city decades ago. Google Fiber has been partnering with GIS “since the beginning,” but Thomton said improving the accuracy of digital mapping is all about "continuous improvement.”

“When I'm looking at a plant, I'm not just looking for degradation and wear and tear. I'm also looking at, is it where I think it is? Because when it comes to plant maintenance, or plant relocations, that's really important. I need to know where my stuff is, if I fix it, if I need to move it for somebody else,” she said.

“So that's something that we've matured over time. We fall probably in the 0% of being perfect at it. But it's something that you have to put at the forefront of again, your preventative maintenance plan and making sure that we're trying to keep everything as up to date as possible.”

Improving those systems also helps Thompton think about her technicians and the labor force that's actually building her network plan in 120-degree heat index in some seasons, and 10 degrees below zero during others.

CycloMedia’s Casey said when operating a network, “you can get by with these approximate records,” but for better deployment times, competition and worker safety, having an accurate record is vital.

Casey added, “You can solve the harsh conditions problem by not putting so many people out there, and you can improve your records in a sustainable way going forward. It's a win-win.”