Tackling the challenge of data collection from disparate cell sites
How Asentria are laying the foundations for analytics, machine learning and AI in the tower industry
With vast reams of data becoming available, towercos and MNOs are investing significant manpower and money into how to leverage the power of such data. Yet analytics are only as good as the data you feed into the system and with tower owners managing hundreds and sometimes thousands of cell sites, often with highly variable equipment types, makes and models across them, collection of good data is a major challenge. Having been operating for over 30 years and with equipment installed at over 150,000 sites, Asentria have a long standing history of supporting the telecom sector across the globe and TowerXchange are honoured to have the company as a founding member of the Data Collection & Utilisation Working Group. Here we speak to Asentria’s Director of Sales & Marketing, Jon Baars to find out more.
TowerXchange: Asentria have been around for 30+ years and have equipment installed at over 150000 sites. They are a company that TowerXchange has been speaking to for a number of years, but for those less familiar with the company, can you introduce Asentria and also some of the clients and partners that you work with globally
Jon Baars, Director, Sales & Marketing, Asentria: Asentria specialises in telecom site automation solutions. Asentria designs and manufactures specific hardware devices to be installed at telecom or tower sites. The most traditional use of our site devices is to notify a central management location if there is a problem related to power, security, or environment at a telecom site. Over many years of working at telecom sites, our devices have become more adept at gathering data and controlling power, security, and environmental subsystems at sites. This experience is leading to a number of interesting new applications that we refer to broadly as telecom site automation. Many of our customers are the largest mobile network operators in North America and Europe, as well as various large integrators and customers that provide solutions to the mobile network operators. We expect that tower companies are going to take over a significant amount of the roles that mobile network operators took in the past, so we’re dedicating ourselves to take what we’ve learned and apply it for the benefit of the towercos.
TowerXchange: A big topic that is coming to the fore in the tower industry is the subject of predictive analytics, whereby reliability of the data is critical. Can you explain some of the challenges that tower owners face in obtaining the data required to leverage intelligent analytics tools and how Asentria helps companies tackle these challenges?
Jon Baars, Director, Sales & Marketing, Asentria: Most sectors (be they telecoms, power, manufacturing or otherwise) are starting to use data analysis in such a way that it is fundamentally changing the way they carry out their operations. Larger amounts of operational data are becoming available and those that can leverage the power of that data will be the most successful. With so many smart examples out there, it is tempting to say, "we’ll just do that too" and want to simply duplicate what is being done by other industries. For the telecom and tower industries specifically, there are a number of challenges that need to be addressed, that might not be present in other industries.
For TowerXchange’s community almost all of them have minimally hundreds of sites, and many have thousands of sites. Often a towerco’s portfolio is made up of highly disparate site types, with variances in equipment makes, models, ages, et cetera. A primary challenge that we feel is often not given enough thought, is what are the challenges involved in getting data from these sites and all this different type of equipment? If an operator has five or six different makes and models of generator in their network for example, how will the data from those different generators be gathered? You could have three to four different physical connections; one generator might be more modern and support an ethernet connection, another might support a serial-based MODBUS connection, and another might have something very basic (or nothing at all). On top of that, two different generator models that support the same physical connections would still have a completely different way of communicating data regarding exactly the same variable. If you want what would seem to be a simple variable, like diesel fuel level, the method of determining that could vary widely across sites. We feel our role is to have the expertise to be able to effectively deliver a "common denominator" set of data across all the sites. If you want to know what the fuel level is at every site from your central operations centre, it shouldn’t matter to you whether that variable was created by querying a smart generator controller or whether it was created by using a fuel measurement probe. You simply want to know that the variable is accurate. Once you have accurately and reliably delivered the data to a central location, then it is relatively straightforward to begin to analyse that data using the same industry leading tools other industries are using, or alternately integrating to some more tower-specific software that might be available.
TowerXchange: There is often a trade-off between top of the range, highly spec’d systems and price, with different companies having differing appetites to buy products on that spectrum. Where do you see Asentria’s offering sitting in this range?
Jon Baars, Director, Sales & Marketing, Asentria: The majority of what we have learned has come from working with mobile network operators in the US and EU, in many cases the work being motivated by critical use cases such as public safety, thus necessitating best in class technologies. For example, in the US we have integrated and taken over the monitoring of tens of thousands of generators for one operator, with the project driven by the concern that customers pay not be able to dial 911 if generators failed to power sites after disasters such as hurricanes. From these customers, Asentria has acquired a lot of experience, aiding in developing both our skill sets and our products. One benefit to our hardware products is that much of what we’ve learned is in the firmware on our units. As we look to work in new geographic areas, one advantage we have is that we’re able to cost-optimise hardware to fit the tower industry and their budgets, whilst not having to compromise on performance, being able to port over the very mature firmware that is basically the summation of years of development. We realise there has to be ROI for these systems, and we’re striving to make sure that we’re the best fit for the markets that the towercos operate in.
TowerXchange: As we run up to our African Meetup we hear time and time again that ease of deploying and maintaining systems is one of the top considerations when it comes to how tower owners select products. How is Asentria innovating to make sure that they fit this brief? What has been the feedback from the market on the changes that you have made?
Jon Baars, Director, Sales & Marketing, Asentria: One of the cost optimisation efforts we’re carrying out is in making the solutions simpler to deploy. There are some pretty basic things that can impact the installation costs of these solutions. Simply making the cabling easier is one area we’re looking to improve in upcoming products. Another, maybe more behind the scenes effort, is utilising the firmware on our units to simplify how a unit gets onto the network. It is much better if a field technician is simply able to verify that LEDs on the front of a unit flashed in the correct sequence to indicate a successful deployment, than it is for them to get out a laptop and configure some aspect of the unit in the field.
TowerXchange: In the many years that Asentria has been supporting a whole range of different companies in managing their distributed assets, can you perhaps provide some lessons learned when it comes to specifiying, designing, piloting and rolling out remote monitoring systems
Jon Baars, Director, Sales & Marketing, Asentria: To ensure the right system is designed for the network, we would strongly advise a client to provide a small set of sites that represent the different kinds of equipment that might exist in the network - sites with generators versus sites without, new versus old, et cetera. It is also helpful if they are all grouped together reasonably closely and typically if they are located near a major airport, company HQ, et cetera. If this is done, then a lot of uncertainty can be eliminated. Asentria should be able to gather data at these sites and deliver it to a central location and once the data is gathered, we can quickly begin to show the type of analytics that are available.Trials will identify problems better than any other method, this is helpful both to us and the towerco. After the initial trials are done, we can often offer recommendations on ways to save costs. In summary, trials are also the only real way to compare competitive solutions.