Lone Star Long Haul
They say everything is bigger in Texas. That statement sure holds true when it comes to deploying a
network in the western part of the state. Recently, FiberLight LLC worked with KCI Technologies Inc. to design and build a dedicated wireless backhaul network that will support 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) expansion for a leading wireless carrier.
KCI had to work with property owners to access many tower sites. Some Texas ranches are so big, that the properties are broken down into 640-acre or one-square-mile sections for identification and navigation purposes. One spread is larger than the state of Rhode Island.
At more than 3,500 route miles in length, serving an area greater than 20,000 square miles, it is the largest and most aggressive telecommunications project in the history of both organizations.
KCI was initially brought in to provide engineering design and permitting for the first 1,700-mile segment of a new fiber optic ring that would eventually connect 277 existing cellular towers throughout the region. Both firms originally approached the project using the staged and sustainable strategy typically implemented for dark fiber. This normally means fiber optic cables are not lit until the entire ring is deployed.
Geospatial developers helped crews in West Texas work more efficiently by giving them better tools to identify fiber alignments.
But, this is no traditional dark fiber ring. After placing nearly 600 miles of cable in the ground in less than 3 months, the team realized a course adjustment was needed. It was a turning point when FiberLight asked KCI to take on more responsibility, serving as project, program, construction, and inventory manager as well as designer.
Focus also shifted from route miles to tower sites. “We needed every domino to fall into place to keep lighting the ring around,” said FiberLight Executive Vice President Judd O. Carothers. “Unlike any other provider that typically deploys a network of this size, the infrastructure wasn’t in place. What made it more complicated was the average distance of 26 miles between towers.”
To deploy fiber to tower sites, engineers had to contend with extreme geographic challenges, ranging from the tallest mountain in Texas, which reaches 8,751 feet above sea level, to the second largest canyon in the country.
Other geographic factors created major design and construction challenges. Routes crossed both rural and urban areas. Engineers had to negotiate with numerous landowners to route fiber to tower sites often situated miles from public right-of-way. At one site, the team had to cross 18 individual ranches.
Crews were also warned of possible drug cartel activity at some locations. Other areas were accessible only via ATV. Urban alignments faced different complications, ranging from congested poles to boring through a web of underground utilities.
The project changed from a primarily aerial build to nearly 90 percent underground to avoid delays caused by pole attachment approval processes. Heavy saw cutting was required in many locations in order to bury conduit in the varied Texas terrain.
The deployment schedule was a driving force behind all aspects of the project. The wireless carrier had launched an active television and radio campaign announcing the network upgrade, and customers began purchasing 4G equipment. With activation dates set and FiberLight requiring additional segments deployed, KCI quickly expanded to a local staff of more than 20. The firm also rented an apartment in San Angelo and houses in Odessa and Amarillo to serve as office and home-base to employees who were working between 80- and 100-hour weeks and driving 5 to 8 hours each day to maintain the project’s momentum. The team averaged 50 miles a week, placing more than 1,000 route miles of new plant, and lit nearly 50 towers in 12 months.
Mapping and related geospatial data was used to identify breakdowns and generate regular status updates. “There was no way we were going to get this project done using traditional methods,” said project manager Michael L. Myers. “Once we took over project management, we had to retool to create a detailed thematic reporting system and establish a process to capture information using GIS.”
The geospatial system used real-time data to create thematic mapping that assisted the team in tracking progress and managing materials inventory.
“The ability to display spatial distribution of attributes on the geographic area of a project in real time, combined with the program management process was the key to this project’s success,” said Dutch Schultz, who before joining KCI served as Verizon’s West Coast director of network engineering and planning. “These capabilities significantly enhance the ability to view, understand, and manage a large project.”
With nearly 80 percent of the routes designed and half of the fiber in place, the project should be complete later this year. When the ring is fully deployed, the nearly one million residents living in the West Texas region will have access to broadband and 4G services.
Amy Lambert is Director of Corporate Communications, KCI. She has more than 20 years of experience with KCI in communications, marketing and business development within the engineering industry. For more information, email email@example.com or visit www.kci.com.
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