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Promising Technology: Using remote site management for improved tower efficiency

November 17, 2015
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The telecom industry has over 400,000 telecom towers across the country, 60 per cent of which are located in rural areas. With the rapid deployment of 3G and 4G networks, the industry is expected to add another 200,000 towers by 2020. As the number of telecom tower sites increases, so will the demand for energy at these sites.

For the network to be able to handle the huge demand for telecom services, operators need to maintain network uptime by ensuring that the towers are adequately supplied with reliable power. Currently, energy costs, including fuel, storage and battery costs, account for more than 50 per cent of the operational expenditure at tower sites. Therefore, optimum usage of energy is critical. In order to better manage energy requirements, tower companies are adopting various strategies, one of them being remote site management.

Need for remote monitoring

While energy is a critical input for the operation of a telecom tower site, its availability in India continues to be a challenge. According to estimates by global consulting firm ICF International, only 10 per cent of all mobile towers have grid power available for more than 20 hours. The lack of reliable grid power has forced operators to rely on diesel, which, in turn, leads to increased costs. This has also compelled operators to focus on managing their energy consumption for effectively carrying out operations.

In addition, the lack of predictability in power availability prevents tower com-panies from planning ahead for power outages. Moreover, the outage cycles vary widely across regions. Therefore, managing the infrastructure to handle the dynamic power situation is an issue.

One way to ensure efficient energy consumption,  and thereby guarantee effective management of energy costs, is to undertake remote monitoring of tower sites on a real-time basis. Remote monitoring entails analysing the energy consumption data provided by monitoring devices installed at telecom sites. This data can help companies design effective business strategies to manage costs.

Collection and analysis of tower site data

In order to gather data for analysis, it is essential to monitor energy sources such as diesel generators, hybrid energy solutions of solar cells and wind generators, as well as the electricity grid. Other important factors are preventive maintenance, which provides data regarding the life expectancy of equipment and access control, which prevents arbitrary access to tower sites. Monitoring devices include weather sensors, fuel level sensors, light sensors and thermostats. The sensors can be deployed inside the shelter at the tower site, along with a diesel generator, as well as in the battery bank. These provide data on diesel generators, electricity from the grid and air-conditioning equipment.

If 20 devices are deployed at 10,000 sites each and data is recorded every 15 seconds for three months, it will result in around 10 million heterogeneous non-correlated data points. The examination of this multidimensional heterogeneous data helps in acquiring business intelligence. An analysis of this data allows companies to build a hypothesis that can be set as a target for improving energy efficiency at tower sites. Further, it can help in deriving new insights from the available data. However, in order to formulate a strategy for cost management, each operator will need to prioritise its targets, such as reducing energy costs, optimising air-conditioning requirements and undertaking preventive maintenance and access control.

Before the advent of remote monitoring, data collected from different sources would take a long time to reach the desired destination, which made it difficult for companies to address issues related to energy efficiency on a real-time basis. Data related to energy consumption would be recorded using traditional logbooks and tabulated in Excel spreadsheets. These records would then be transferred to cluster or circle offices every month and reach their final destination after several stopovers. At each halt, there would be a possibility of delay and information loss or change, leading to inaccurate analysis of the data. However, with innovations in communication technologies, data can be made available in real time, thus facilitating accurate analysis.

Energy data management

Given the huge quantity of energy data that is received from several sources, such as smart meters, remote monitoring systems, intelligent diesel generator sets and battery management systems, its filtration is important. Once the data is collected, it is monitored and analysed, after which the necessary action is taken. Subsequently, the process returns to the monitoring stage, since there are occasions when further corrective measures may need to be taken. This cyclic approach needs to be followed in order to assess data correctly.

The monitoring platform should be independent of the hardware at the site, which should send information to the same monitoring platform, so that the operator receives a single view of the situation. Further, once the data is collected by the monitoring system, it should flow into the energy tracking or energy management system, rather than have multiple solutions tracking energy independently. Analytics follow soon after the energy is tracked.

Apart from managing data, the maintenance of an asset inventory is also necessary. Asset management includes database management as well as warranty management. Each asset comes with a warranty spanning a different period. Whether an asset is under warranty or not is an important factor, especially when a problem is reported. With this information, the system can automatically send an email to a supplier with information about the site where the faulty equipment has been reported. Similarly, for maintenance activity, the operator can easily track which particular site the equipment has been maintained at and where it has not, and if there has been no maintenance activity, whether it has been scheduled in the next maintenance cycle. With this approach, no asset is left unmaintained for an extended period.

The way forward

The key advantage offered by remote site monitoring  is the reduction in energy expenses on account of tower operations. Some industry experts claim that operators can save 5-10 per cent of their energy expense through this approach. In fact, monitoring energy consumption could also increase asset life by 10 per cent. In addition, tower operators can realise improvements in their operational efficiency through the use of intelligence derived from analysing real-time data.

Despite the advantages that remote monitoring offers, its implementation remains a key challenge. Data collection from various tower sites in remote places, as well as its real-time aggregation and analysis, involves a complex process of adapting to site-specific solutions to cater to local needs. Moreover, the source data systems are dynamic and aligning these systems is necessary for carrying out accurate analysis. It is essential for the collected data to be verified against information received from multiple sources, such as the electricity board, oil companies and asset management companies. Multiple validations can help ensure that only accurate data is fed into the system for analysis.

In sum, remote site management can play a key role in maintaining, managing and regulating telecom tower site infrastructure. Telecom operators bring in cost efficiencies and thereby reduce their capex through the increased use of remote site management solutions.  Going forward, the effective management of energy costs through business intelligence would necessitate the creation of a sustainable process, transparent monitoring and a proactive approach to data analysis.

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