Podcast episode 25: Cell Tower Climbing under COVID-19

Illustration of Mirjana Scheele

You’re not the only one working from home. The roll-out of the next big thing in wireless won’t be stalled by COVID-19. 

Mirjana Scheele is a former cell tower climber and the current VP of Deploy Services at Nokia, where network technologies first designed to cut costs and save the environment are now being leveraged to save ourselves, by enabling more remote work and maintenance.

Below is a transcript of the conversation. Some parts have been edited for clarity. 

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Michael Hainsworth: What started off as a cost and environmental saving measure has ensured COVID-19 and physical distancing requirements haven’t stalled the rollout of the next big thing in wireless. When the telecom industry launched 4G, it killed 1,300 trees annually just to make the binders of technical documents for the 450,000 cell sites set up every year. 5G is a different story. 

Thanks to a combination of fascinating new technologies that are changing our world forever — from artificial intelligence to zone monitoring drones. I had a chance to talk to someone who got her start in the industry climbing towers, and today, climb the ladder at Nokia Networks to become its head of deployment. Mirjana Scheele says there was a time when her car’s trunk was loaded down. As she drove all over Europe, going from cell site to cell site.

Mirjana Scheele: I started in this business 23 years ago, and my first works were installation and commissioning. And I remember very well driving thousands and thousands of kilometers on a monthly basis from one site to another with a car full of the folders and documentation and all the different types of the tools. Today, that’s not needed anymore at all. Today, we do not need to carry any paper and absolutely nothing is really required in the paper form to do the work which is needed on the site.

And then when you look at it from the sustainability perspective, especially from the environmental sustainability perspective, it is a significant improvement because if we think about the fact that we are building, on an annual basis, probably around 450- maybe even 500,000 sites. And in the past for each site we would need a minimum of 20 sheets of documentation. I’ve been doing some calculation some weeks back of what that means for the number of the trees needed to just have the documentation for the site? It’s approximately over 1,300 trees annually for this basic documentation, for the installation of approximately 450,000 sites a year. Today, that’s absolutely not needed anymore.

Hainsworth: So you’re telling me that there was a time when we killed a thousand trees just to put together the binders necessary for the site visits that you would then have to travel all over for. Now, we don’t have to do any of that because it’s all digitized, it’s all on a smartphone or a tablet type of device. And I can imagine in many cases you don’t have to even get into a car anymore, anyway, because after that very first site visit, it’s all been recorded with video.

Scheele: Oh yes, absolutely. And this is another aspect of the improvements happening that are helping us to do things faster, cheaper, better. But it has a huge positive impact on many of the different aspects of sustainability. What is happening through this digitalization and utilization of different video platforms and the drones is we are collecting the data in the digital form, the quality of the data being collected, and also we are controlling the installations and the quality of the installation.

It’s significantly better than anything we have been doing in the past. Because even if you have just great people doing the work on the site, everybody sometimes makes mistakes. And when you make mistakes and you don’t collect exactly this serial number, or exactly this information, or exactly this length of this particular cable, when you go back to the office, you can’t order the material in the right way. So you need to send somebody to check once more.

So we’ve been counting, and we are reducing approximately 30 percent of the site visits necessary by using digital tools and the means – cameras, drones, and the digital platforms – compared to what was just a few years back. And in that area, the positive impact on the environment is unbelievable. Because again, if you think about, let’s say we reduce to just one site visit (the normal is much more) and we assume that we travel only five kilometers to the site, and yes, there are sites where the teams are traveling less than five kilometers, but there are sites where teams are traveling many more kilometers.

We travel five kilometers in one direction and five kilometers in another direction, and then we make the assumption that we use a car with an average gasoline consumption of eight liters per hundred kilometers. Then we come to the unbelievable over 800 tonnes of the carbon dioxide emission reduction on an annual basis for 450,000 sites.

So it means there is this huge positive impact due to significant reduction of the emission of carbon dioxide, just through the digitalization in my part of the business. And I’m really very passionate about that and very proud of that because we are managing to do the things faster, better, cheaper, and are much more sustainable for our planet.

Hainsworth: So that’s all in preparation for a site to put up a tower or maybe the tower’s there and you’re just going to add the radio to the side of it. How has coordination changed to minimize in-person interaction?

Scheele: Especially today, in these exceptional times where the pandemic with the COVID-19 is forcing us to change the way we are doing the things, we are utilizing these digital platforms on the use cases which we never thought that we will be utilizing them. So actually this is opening a lot of opportunities for us. Because we are trying, on one side, to comply with the expectations of the society, and that means to continue with the essential services in every country in this exceptional situation, where telecom is part of it, and to continue with the implementation of the new sites especially in critical situations like building a new hospital somewhere.

And on the other side, we are equally responsible for our employees, and we have to make sure that our employees and subcontractors are being protected to the highest possible degree. So we are trying to avoid any unnecessary visits and especially putting more people on one site. Recently, for one of our customers the situation involved so-called security visits, which are required to be organized face-to-face onsite before the real implementation work starts to take place. And in the security visits, there are parties required to be physically present on site from the different entities.

So one party is the customer and the other party is our subcontractor, third parties are we and then the fourth party is the independent institution for security verifications. In order to prevent these face-to-face contacts which are increasing the risk of the further penetration of COVID-19, they have been proposing just to send one person on the side and to use a video collaboration platform through which all the information are being transmitted. There is a transfer of the voice documentation and the video at the same time, which can be monitored in real-time through the application on your phone or their laptop from the office.

And we are now making a change for this particular customer, even discussing changing some of the rules and regulations in that country officially and enabling us to take steps further. So even in the current situation, this digitalization is getting much more use cases in comparison to what was just a few months back, and is helping us on one side to continue with essential services and on another side to protect our employees from unnecessary risks.

Hainsworth: You mentioned drones. I’m a huge geek. I love drones, but I can’t imagine that you’re going to an electronics store and buying a consumer grade drone and flying it up to a tower. Like the cameras alone would be insufficient to be able to read almost anything. Tell me about that drone technology you’re using.

Scheele: Yes. The drones becoming really, kind of business as usual for us in deployment services, because we are utilizing them for several different use cases, for the collection of the data. And we are building some new ones on the top. So what is happening is that, we normally take a drone pilot, together with the drones, which are slightly better and slightly more professional than the standard drones which anybody is using for private purposes, because the resolution of the data and the pictures and the video collected has to be very high in order for us to be in the position to collect everything what we need.

Hainsworth: Right. Some of these drones are the size of cars. So if between the one the size of a small cat like mine, and the one that’s the size of a car, where do your drones fit in?

Scheele: Probably around the cat or a little bit bigger than the cat. We are not using the big ones.  And also we are trying to balance our usage of the drones, because there are different types of permits in different parts of the world which are needed to be given in order to drive the drones.

Hainsworth: Right.

Scheele: The bigger the drone is, sometimes it might be more difficult to get a permit for the usage, so we need to balance it. Obviously in some parts of the world, this is still very flexible and we have no issue in using it, but in some parts there’s still some time before we reach the point where using drones will be possible without any difficulties.

So we are trying to use the maximum possible quality with the minimum possible size. We are obviously taking the drone pilots, we are getting the right permits from the entities responsible. And instead of sending people to climb up the tower or to go to the top of the building, we are simply flying the drones, documenting the data, having developed the software for post processing of this data, and the documentation is produced automatically out of the data being recorded.

So that is helping us as well to reduce time, to improve quality, to reduce the cost and positively impact all the aspects of that what is important for us as a company, for our customers, and then obviously has equally positive impact on the sustainability from the environmental point of view.

Hainsworth: So everyone wants to do things faster, better, and cheaper. How does sustainability fit into that?

Scheele: These are not mutually exclusive things, actually. Doing things faster, better, and cheaper doesn’t mean that they are not having a positive impact in all three aspects of the sustainability. On the contrary, they are often coming along together, and getting things done faster, better, and cheaper is bringing environmental benefits. It is bringing the economic benefits and it very often will have very strong social benefits.

So in my area in particular, in deploy services and deployment of the radio networks, what we are doing with digitalization is actually helping us to do the things faster, cheaper, better, and at the same time having a very positive impact on the environment, on the economy and as well from the social point of view.

Hainsworth: Help me understand more about digitalization. First of all, I didn’t even know that was a real word.

Scheele: Normally, putting up one base station and getting it in service take a couple of weeks, but the whole preparation around it, it’s much longer. It’s starts from the time we need to get permits or find the site location. Then some civic work has to be done. Sometimes cranes are needed. Then installation of the technical equipment needs to be done. Then it has to be commissioned and integrated and then put into service. So this complete process can take sometimes even one year for one site.

Data digitalization and the digitalization of most activities through platforms, is reducing the time needed for one site from one year to probably 200 days for everything. But it depends on the part of the world and the activities involved. How is that possible? We are putting in place automated workflow orchestration platforms, which are helping us to firstly, eliminate a lot of manual activities which could been done in the past with a lot of mistakes, and to assure that all the dependencies are being prepared transparently and being managed in an automated way, which is accelerating the preparation and reducing the time needed to get everything in place to have this final act of the installation of the site.

In the past before we started doing any work on the site, we have to do technical sites surveys. And that means we need to send a couple of people to the site to do the inspection.They need to document everything, they need to look at which cables are already there, which power supply is there, are the cabinets there, which containers are there. They need to look  at distances, in what status the material is on site. They need to document all this manually on paper. Then they send this documentation to some back office activities. Then in the office, somebody is looking at it and deciding, ‘Oh, we need to do this, this and that in this site in order to be able to install it.’ And this complete process takes place normally over several weeks.

Today, we have digital platforms configured so that the people onsite have access to the information through a mobile phone application. The information will then be captured onsite, immediately put through this application, and the documentation is generated by the time they’re done the visit. Firstly, it’s significantly reducing the effort and secondly, it’s improving the quality.

Hainsworth: When we think of environmentally and socially responsible business practices, we often think higher cost. How do we directly connect these two issues with improved economics?

Scheele: Well, in our case actually the costs are not higher. The costs are lower because we are managing to get the things done faster, better in the digitalized way, which is reducing our costs and positively impacting environmental sustainability. I can imagine that in some of the industries this might not be that easy, but for us, digitalization is having positive multiple effects in both directions.

For example, if we do the proper collection of the data on the site, what we can do with utilization of the drone and workflow orchestration platforms, we don’t need to send somebody for the second time. It’s cheaper for us, and it’s better for the environment too. It’s cheaper for our customer. It’s faster for our customers because we get the site work done faster, they can faster go on the market with the new services. So it’s better for customers, for us, for the environment altogether.

Hainsworth: What are the risks and legitimate concerns about the negative impacts of digitalization?

Scheele: Obviously through this digitalization, which is having a positive economical and environmental impact, there is a certain amount of work that is becoming unnecessary. So that means some of the activities which have been done in the past manually are not needed to be done anymore at all, or some of the work which is being done on the site in the duration of the time of couple of weeks, now it is being done in a much shorter period of the time, so the capacity of the work which is needed for finishing the things on the site is much less than that.

Hainsworth: It sounds like what you’re telling me is pink slips.

Scheele: Something like that. On one side, we know that now with the deployment of the 5G there is a huge demand which is increasing significantly the amount of the work which needs to get done, where we do have constraints that we are not finding enough capacity on the market, so there are not enough workers with the right skills to do this work. Because this amount of work has not been coming over the last couple of years. Now, there is a huge demand which equally is helping us not to have a problem of unemployment due to these digitalizations because of the significant increase in demand.

Still some of the activities are definitely not going to be needed. And the only thing I have to say and I can say is that, for all of us who want to see the opportunity in digitalization, there is the opportunity. There are many more other activities and other tasks which will have to be done in the future, which have not been even existing in the past. And we need to be ready to learn and be flexible to adapt to the development of the technology and its impact on the industry.

Hainsworth: But it sounds like what you’re talking about here is faster deployment with fewer resources. What ultimately does this mean for today’s society?

Scheele: For today’s society this means less environmental negative impact. This means probably for many of the countries, less stretched resources and less overwork. And thirdly, in some of the places, there is overall less demand towards capacity which has been needed for the ramp up of the network in comparison to that what is at the moment.

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