GIS & Fiber Network Mapping
The Ultimate Guide
Every fiber optic network operator needs a mapping software platform.
Staying competitive in the modern fiber optic development space is hard without a Geographic Information System (GIS) that can help you visualize your fiber network and its critical components.
Fortunately, GIS platforms have evolved significantly over the last several decades. Now, businesses of all types have access to sophisticated virtual mapping capabilities.
These platforms enable fiber network managers to create high-quality digital representations of their networks, run data queries, troubleshoot issues, and plan for future growth.
The challenge is in finding the right GIS platform for your needs. GIS software comes in all shapes and sizes. Some solutions are designed specifically for companies that operate in niche markets. Others are for general use by those who only want to run simple geospatial analyses.
This guide is designed to help you find the right solution for your fiber network management organization. Here, we explain what GIS platforms are and how they support fiber optic deployments so that you can make an educated decision.
Use the table of contents below to jump to specific sections or start at the beginning! Read along, or download a PDF version.
A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a software platform that enables users to study data as it relates to Earth’s geography. Analysts can create visualizations consisting of basemaps and data layers that help explain geographic patterns and trends.
For example, city planners might use GIS to study how urban areas develop over time and impact local development. Epidemiologists can use GIS to analyze disease prevalence and track how viruses spread. Climate scientists can also observe weather patterns and monitor how natural environments change.
Organizations have been using GIS platforms since the 1960s. However, they have become more accessible in recent years due to advances in cloud computing and data management technology. Overall, platforms are easier to use and less costly to license.
GIS platforms allow organizations to layer different types of spatial data on top of basemaps that depict real-world environments. Most GIS platforms come with a core set of basemaps, which can be customized in many ways.
Users can adjust zoom to show narrow geographic areas or vast, country-wide landscapes. They can also attribute color palettes to certain features and highlight areas that meet predefined criteria.
There are four primary types of basemaps:
These basemaps sit underneath data layers that are tied to locations on the earth’s surface. Locations can be represented in many ways. Zip codes, latitude and longitude coordinates, and street addresses are all viable approaches for connecting data layers to basemaps.
The most common types of data layers are:
GIS solutions enable organizations to combine basemaps and data layers in countless ways.
For example, a public health agency could use GIS to study how the flu spreads across a city by layering instances of the virus on top of an urban landscape. A law enforcement agency could also layer crime activity data on top of a road basemap and study how street lighting might impact behavior. Forest ecologists could easily see how national parks are shrinking or growing by layering forest boundary data on top of terrain maps.
With GIS, the analytical possibilities are endless. Many platforms can support multiple data layers simultaneously, which allows organizations to explore relationships between many types of spatial data.
GIS solutions offer many advantages that traditional business intelligence (BI) tools do not.
Because GIS platforms enable users to visualize data over real-world landscapes, they can discover insights that would be harder to find with 2D spreadsheets and graphs. For example, it would be much more useful to study rainfall across different sections of a mountain range using a GIS map than it would through a bar chart. Using this approach, analysts can gain a much clearer perspective on spatial data that is easy to translate into actionable next steps.
Teams can also use data layers that represent different snapshots in time to observe how boundary lines or features change. As a result, they can build better forecasting models for geographic data and plan better for the future.
Today, GIS platforms are more accessible and user-friendly than ever before. For those who work with geospatial data, GIS offers a world of analytical opportunity.
GIS platforms offer advantages for many kinds of organizations.
From research institutions to for-profit enterprises, there is no one type of user that GIS solutions are designed to support. Some use GIS to analyze current findings and events, while others may be more concerned with studying historical geospatial data.
GIS has been particularly valuable for organizations in the following spaces:
The public health sector has benefited tremendously from GIS capabilities over the years. With digital mapping tools, public health agencies can study disease prevalence and growth more effectively. They can evaluate societal health trends that may be tied to geographic factors and draw conclusions that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Recently, opioid-related incidents have increased significantly in the U.S. With GIS, public health authorities can create digital maps that represent where overdoses have occurred in a given area, allowing them to identify high-risk neighborhoods that need targeted support. Leaders can allocate resources more efficiently and coordinate efforts between different public health organizations easily with high-quality, compelling visualizations.
On the environmental front, GIS platforms are valuable for studying how our world is evolving. Scientists can create unique data layers for their specific fields of study to identify relationships between different types of spatial data.
For example, glaciologists can build monthly visualizations that depict how glacial boundaries shift over extended periods. They can layer boundary coordinates over basemaps that show how glaciers expand or recede throughout the year.
GIS platforms can also be used to study pollution, especially in urban areas. Researchers can layer pollution-related data on top of road basemaps that may reveal how traffic patterns or road design affect air quality.
As people continue to flock to urban environments, GIS is becoming more important for city planners and developers. Cities are growing increasingly complex and transportation is changing rapidly.
With GIS, urban planners can optimize development, forecast environmental impact, and study demographic data. For example, an urban developer might use a GIS platform to see where all grocery stores are located in a city to identify potential food deserts. They could also evaluate public transportation routes and see where there is a lack of coverage that needs to be addressed.
GIS tools empower city planners to work closely with public officials to ensure that growth does not outpace capacity. They can also collaborate with human services organizations to ensure that aid and resources are distributed effectively.
Businesses that deal with brick-and-mortar locations can also use GIS platforms.
GIS is valuable for growth planning, as it is easy to create digital maps that show competitor locations, foot traffic, and the demographic characteristics of local markets. Franchises that only open locations under specific criteria can analyze variables, such as average household income, so long as they have a geographic identifier.
Businesses, such as restaurants, fast food chains, and car washes, are all examples of companies with brick-and-mortar operations that can test geographies through virtual GIS mapping before making decisions about certain areas.
Internet use has been expanding rapidly all over the world. With 5G on the horizon, fiber optic network development is only going to increase.
As a result, GIS capabilities are becoming more relevant for fiber network development as operators need visual representations of their networks that they can easily maintain. Users can create data layers consisting of all relevant network elements, including cable spans and termination points. Sophisticated GIS platforms enable fiber network operators to quickly query network data and troubleshoot issues as they arise.
Network developers can also determine where new developments are being built in target markets and assess whether or not they have the existing capacity to support new clients. GIS maps also help users visually see where they have redundancies or vulnerabilities in their networks.
Organizations have been using GIS platforms since the 1960s. However, the concept of spatial analysis dates back to the early 19th century.
In the 1830s, Charles Picquet, a French cartographer, created a map of Paris that used a color gradient to show how many deaths per thousand had occurred from cholera across the city’s 48 districts. Picquet’s map helped local public health authorities understand where cholera was most prevalent and how it was spreading. His efforts revealed the value of creating visual representations of data that could be tied to specific locations on earth’s surface.
Epidemiologists all over the world took inspiration from Picquet’s work and began using maps more frequently in their study of diseases and public health more broadly. Spatial analysis continued to expand until the 1960s when computational geography and spatial analysis gained legitimacy in research labs at academic institutions.
In 1963, Roger Tomlinson was commissioned by the Canadian government to develop a digital inventory of the country’s natural resources. His work culminated in the first computerized GIS, earning him the title of the “Father of GIS.”
One year later, Howard Fisher established the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics with one of the first software GIS programs, SYMAP. The lab became a crucial site for GIS innovation over the following decades.
In the late 1960s, one of the leading developers of GIS tools and resources, ESRI, was founded. The company was instrumental in commercializing GIS in 1981, which resulted in a major expansion of digitized geospatial analyses.
With the explosion of the internet in the 1990s, GIS technology took another leap forward as users were able to collect and disseminate data much more easily. Analysts could collaborate on projects remotely and insights could be shared across different disciplines. Today, there is no shortage of GIS platforms as developers recognize how important geospatial mapping is to so many organizations.
As next-generation technology sweeps our world, GIS will be vital for understanding how people groups and geographies are impacted. Over the next ten years, billions of IoT devices will flood the market, creating new data streams that can be mapped and studied with GIS platforms.
Simultaneously, artificial intelligence and machine learning will make it easier to collect and study massive datasets. With so much available information, organizations will continue to rely on GIS solutions to evaluate any geospatial data.
GIS platforms vary significantly in their capabilities, design, and complexity.
Many offer a core set of basic mapping and analytical features that are easy to use. Some GIS platforms, like ESRI, are designed to be comprehensive solutions for large enterprises that need a variety of visualization tools. Others, like GoogleEarth Pro, are built for smaller organizations with simpler needs.
Below are several of the most widely used platforms today organized into three categories to help illustrate the spectrum of choices available.
One of the most powerful and widely used GIS solutions today is offered by ESRI. The company was founded in 1969, six years after Roger Tomlinson developed the first computerized GIS. ESRI has grown with the spatial analytics and computational geography disciplines, cementing its legacy as one of the field’s top GIS developers.
ESRI offers its products under the ArcGIS name. The company’s desktop solution for advanced analytical needs is called ArcGIS Pro. ArcGIS Online is ESRI’s web-based solution for organizations with remote teams that want to collaborate on building interactive maps. For developers who want to create their mapping solutions, the company has a suite of ArcGIS apps.
For those new to the GIS space, ESRI is a must-know brand that can help benchmark any solution under consideration.
Pitney Bowes owns MapInfo, a robust desktop application with a simple user interface. MapInfo initially launched in 1986 and has evolved over time. Analysts can create thematic maps and incorporate data layers from many sources on top of an existing portfolio of basemaps.
MapInfo makes it easy to customize visualizations in order to draw out more nuanced insights. The company offers a free trial of its GIS platform so that users can test its functionality before purchasing any licenses.
Some enterprises may not need all of the tools and features that come with the industry’s more robust solutions.
For smaller organizations, lightweight solutions, like Maptitude, might make more sense. Maptitude is an agile platform that comes with digital mapping essentials, without the bells and whistles of many heavier solutions. The product is sold by Caliper Corporation, a leading organization in the field of transportation software.
GoogleEarth Pro is a free platform that can be downloaded for desktop use or launched online. Although limited, the platform can serve as a valid testing ground for those exploring the world of GIS. Users can perform simple calculations and measurements on top of high-quality images of the earth’s surface.
There are also open source GIS platforms that are built and sustained by many contributors. The most popular open source application today is QGIS. QGIS is a platform developed by the Open Source Geospatial Foundation. Users can launch QGIS online or on desktop computers.
The platform is one of the fastest-growing on the market today due to its low-cost, highly customizable nature. Analysts and developers have 400 plugins available to them to shape QGIS to their specific needs.
Beyond these platforms, there are many others from which to choose. Fortunately, most GIS developers offer free trials of their products so that users can test different mapping interfaces, capabilities, and tools. Be sure to explore various options with your unique data sets to identify which GIS features are most important for your team.
There are three primary types of GIS products:
There are pros and cons associated with each. Web-based applications are designed for organizations with less complicated needs that may not have dedicated GIS experts. Server-based applications, on the other hand, are built for dedicated users in niche sectors who must perform highly complex geospatial analyses.
Below is a brief rundown of each category and its key advantages.
Of the three types of GIS applications, web-based platforms are best suited for those who want basic digital mapping functionality with the ability to collaborate across remote teams.
Web-based platforms enable analysts to build visualizations online and run simple queries on geospatial data. They are cost-effective as they come with fewer of the high-powered visualization and analytical tools that heavier users need. As a result, these solutions take less time to learn.
Web-based products are an excellent starting point for organizations and individuals who are just beginning to explore GIS functionality. However, larger datasets and complex queries may be too much for some platforms to handle.
Desktop GIS solutions are a step up from web-based platforms.
They are incredibly useful for creating high-quality maps and performing complex analyses on large data sets. Desktop applications tend to possess more functionality than web-based solutions, which is relevant for more nuanced research topics with unique data inputs.
On the downside, this means that desktop solutions are harder to master. There is a steeper learning curve before users can maximize the use of their platforms. While it is easier today than ever before to use desktop GIS platforms, it still takes time to unlock their full potential.
Desktop solutions also tend to be more expensive than web-based products.
Fortunately, many GIS developers sell licenses to both desktop and web-based products.
The most powerful GIS platforms on the market today are server-based solutions.
These are built for expert users who need extremely powerful mapping and analytical tools to address their specific research questions. Server-based solutions support simultaneous use with massive datasets, which means that remote teams can collaborate on highly complex analyses. Analysts can run incredibly intensive queries and build highly customized visualizations.
Consequently, server-based GIS solutions are the most difficult to learn and can be much more expensive to support than web-based or desktop applications.
GIS capabilities are vital for fiber optic network management.
Fiber network leaders need to be able to create high-quality “fiber maps” that support day-to-day operations and future development. GIS platforms are ideal for fiber network management as operators can easily create visual representations that catalog every element in their networks. These maps are a single source of truth that all stakeholders can use.
GIS fiber design is essential for three reasons:
With fiber GIS software, network managers are empowered to deliver exceptional experiences for customers over the long term. As telecommunication companies launch 5G networks all over the world, GIS-supported fiber network management will only become more important.
When it comes to fiber network management, operators must be able to visualize how all elements are arranged and related to each other.
Creating visual representations of fiber optic networks, or fiber maps, helps bring about a deeper level of understanding of how a network is performing. With fiber maps, operators have a digital record of all network components that is easy to maintain and reference.
In the past, spreadsheets and hand-drawn maps were needed to maintain this information. For obvious reasons, these methods of recordkeeping were inefficient and time-intensive. Because all fiber components can be associated with geographic locations, operators can now create digital versions of their networks that show how components are arranged in real-world environments.
Using GIS platforms, fiber network operators can gain a clearer perspective on how components are distributed spatially across a given market. They can see where they lack coverage and plan expansion efforts more effectively.
For example, a network operator could reference a fiber map to see where he or she has excess capacity in existing cable routes. With this information, the operator could make an informed decision on how to expand to serve new clients.
Sales teams can also use fiber maps to see where they should focus their efforts. They could query network data to identify potential clients who were positioned close to unused fiber strands. Without investing major capital into new cable installations, sales leads could turn to their fiber maps for ideas on how to grow within a market.
GIS fiber maps can also help network managers decide how to allocate limited resources, such as repair support. Guided by GIS tools, they could identify areas with the highest concentrations of clients and place repair technicians near those areas in order to reduce issue response times.
Any fiber network operator knows the importance of effective troubleshooting.
GIS platforms make it much easier for fiber optic network managers to identify problems and address them quickly. For example, network operators can take OTDR readings from field technicians and plug them into their fiber maps to determine where cable issues are occurring.
Additionally, field technicians can study urban basemaps to create minimally invasive action plans when cables need repair. At the same time, operators could see where they have extra capacity to support clients while primary routes are repaired. Overall, using GIS for fiber management is less costly and reduces downtime for end users.
On a broader level, GIS fiber mapping can help operators discover network vulnerabilities. Fiber maps make it much easier to recognize where there is a lack in network redundancy that could create issues down the road. Operators can use this information to address weaknesses and avoid future problems.
Introduced previously, “fiber maps” are becoming increasingly valuable for fiber optic network management as the sector grows more competitive.
It is important for operators to understand what fiber maps are and exactly why they are useful. With today’s powerful GIS applications, building fiber maps has never been easier.
A visual representation of a fiber network is called a “fiber map.”
Fiber maps function as a single source of truth that capture geographic information about all elements in a network. These maps can hold thousands of data points for individual cables, splice points, termination ports, and patches. GIS platforms make it possible to create versatile fiber maps that display different types of data depending on the goals of the users.
For example, a network operator might create a fiber map that has unique data layers for streets, buildings, natural terrain, roadside electrical boxes, and existing cable routes. Users could toggle these layers on and off to see how various geographic elements and network components were related across a region.
An operator might use this information for contingency planning, troubleshooting, or to study competitive dynamics in a target market. Or, a developer may want to assess terrain in an underserved area in order to estimate how much it would cost to expand the network to new users.
Fiber maps also provide an organized method to record any changes made to a physical network. Operators simply need to add network data to their digital map tables, which will automatically update the corresponding data layers. Fiber mapping creates continuity in recordkeeping that helps operators manage personnel changes over time.
Overall, there are many use cases for fiber maps as operators can combine data layers in countless ways. Being able to visualize network elements has tremendous advantages for managing and optimizing fiber optic networks over the long term.
OSPInsight is a fiber network management platform that is designed to integrate seamlessly with every GIS platform.
Whether your organization uses a desktop, web, or server-based solution, our team can help you create comprehensive fiber maps that represent every component within your fiber optic network. For those who do not currently have a GIS vendor, our platform also comes with tools that provide essential mapping functionality.
OSPInsight tools and reports are designed to be used with GIS features. For example, operators can use our Capacity Report to study where there are unused fibers across a market. They can create a data layer with capacity information that sits on top of a digital representation of their network and visualize how they would serve new clients.
Our Find Fault tool is built to identify cable breaks using OTDR readings so that technicians can prioritize repair efforts across large networks. By using this tool with a fiber map, repairs are much easier to address.
Beyond these examples, we have many other tools and reports that are most valuable when used with sophisticated mapping software. Want to learn more about how to maximize fiber network management with your GIS solution?