The Challenge of Forecasting Site Acquisition (And What To Do About It)
By Tom Leddo
Wireless operators are seeking new ways to navigate through the perfect storm of 100+ percent penetration (market saturation), price competition and the insatiable demand for constant high-speed connectivity. In other words, everyone has a mobile phone and the carriers are in a price war to retain and/or get new customers who have an increasing expectation for the ability to upload unlimited photos and stream unlimited video anytime, and anywhere.
But if carriers are going to be able to supply the bandwidth to meet forecasted demand OTT video, and the many other demands for wireless data, then there will need to be ongoing development of both micro and macro sites throughout the United States.
However, the development and upgrading of traditional macro sites has slowed significantly in the first half of 2015 from the frenetic pace caused by the need to upgrade networks to LTE over the last few years. Also, optimistic forecasts for small cells have yet to be reached primarily because the deployment costs per node do not provide the return on investment required to justify the installations in large volume. Furthermore, most of the major operators paused in 2015 to digest acquisitions, contemplate future financing and restructure their operations to adjust to the new realities in the wireless marketplace.
The latest forecasts indicate that capital expenditure will begin to increase for more cell sites and upgrades over the next few quarters. But it is becoming much more obvious that this rebound in cell cite development of both new and upgraded cell sites must be deployed much faster, more frequently and at lower costs.
Traditionally, site acquisition has been a very inefficient and unpredictable part of the site development process. And because site acquisition is the first part of the process for new and upgraded sites, if a forecast date is missed, the entire construction and installation schedule is thrown out of forecast and out of budget.
The wireless infrastructure industry needs to find ways to streamline site acquisition and make it much more predictable. In other words, new deployment models are needed!
Trying to accurately forecast site acquisition for a new cell site or to upgrade an existing one is almost impossible because the typical functions are completely subject to human behavior and thus highly variable.
This volatility can throw timelines and site deployment cost models into total disarray. Construction Managers and Project Managers need to have equipment and crews scheduled in the right place at the right time and if a lease is not executed or a permit is not obtained, the cost of moving or storing equipment and redeploying a crew can destroy margins.
A number of factors can delay a Notice To Proceed (NTP) such as leasing, zoning, permitting, structural failures, etc. Often these problems begin to snowball and throw an entire deployment budget out of whack, cost PM’s their jobs and cause heart and other stress related problems – literally.
At the beginning of any project, no one can tell you with a reliable degree of certainty when a given landlord will properly sign and return a lease or lease amendment, how long it will take a municipal employee to review and approve a permit application or zoning request or what the structural pass/fail rate will be on a group of towers – especially now that radios are mounted in the air with the antennas. We no longer operate in the days where a failed structural analysis (SA) just results in a check request. Now a failed SA leads to revisions of the RF Data Sheets to try and meet the load capacity of the existing tower which is much easier said than done and causes further delays. There is more back and forth between site acquisition and RF than I have ever seen in the industry.
One way to eliminate this wasted expense and inefficiency is to forecast more conservatively and thus give a site acquisition team more time to complete their leasing, environmental and regulatory tasks. But let’s deal in reality. Even if a reputable site acquisition vendor develops what they honestly believe to be a sound forecast, there are simply too many unknowns and unforeseeable circumstances beyond their control.
In short, meeting the forecast for NTP’s is difficult at best.
Why Site Acquisition is so Hard to Forecast – and What We Should Do About It)
- Ready, Aim, Fire!
Let’s be honest. Deployment projects rarely start on time. Budget approval takes longer than expected, the issuing of PO’s is delayed and RF data sheets are released late and often change. And while the start dates are often delayed, the on-air forecast is rarely extended to accommodate the delays. This throws PM’s into a frenzy of activity and forces them to seek corners to cut and interim milestones to meet so they “appear” to be on time. Late starts are just part of life but when they occur without subsequently pushing out the targeted completion dates along with the pressure to get sites on-air, our industry typically skips the most important, initial step – planning. Most projects develop a scope of work for billing and milestone purposes but lack a detailed step-by-step process flow to get the work completed. By preparing a detailed plan up-front, weeks and even months of inefficiencies can be trimmed off the timeline. At Md7, we begin every project in front of a wipe board where we map out a step-by-step process flow and then turn that into a Visio flow chart. After a few iterations, we end up with ten to fifteen pages of process detail that streamlines the entire project. There are literally hundreds of steps and sub-steps to get from PO to NTP and, if not planned and tracked in that same level of detail, then we fall into reactive mode – which is what typically happens in site acquisition. To successfully complete site acquisition, you must be proactive and well prepared in advance. Typically in our industry, we talk about being proactive, but rarely are we actually proactive. While this takes extra time upfront, the time saved throughout the entire project more than makes up for it.
- You can’t control (much less forecast) human behavior
I have heard it said many times that the post-NTP phase (construction and installation are the most expensive part of a deployment process and also the most predictable, but the pre-NTP, site acquisition phase is much cheaper and far less predictable and can throw the construction and installation phase into a tailspin. No matter how good of a negotiator, you can’t make a landlord sign a doc before they are ready. And if you pressure a smart landlord to sign faster they will actually strategically slow down to apply pressure for rent and other concessions. Similarly, no matter how good of a relationship you have with a municipality, you generally cannot expect a government employee or official to approve your document faster as they typically have their own strict procedures to follow. Personally, I believe that if you submit a well prepared, well organized and error-free zoning request or permit application you will get what you need MUCH faster than if you have a great relationship with the municipal employee behind the counter. Often there are well-intentioned attempts keep the site acquisition process progressing by visiting a landlord or municipality in person with a bag of bagels and waiting for them until they meet with you and grant your request or just buy them a steak dinner or a bottle of scotch. While this sounds like a great idea on a deployment call to get a slow moving site going, it is really just confusing busyness with progress.Keep in mind the old saying “if you want it bad, you get it bad.” If you want it quickly, you get lower quality which in the end might help smooth over a deployment update, but will in the end delay on-air.
- The spreadsheet deployment tracker is relic from the 1980’s
According to Wikipedia, Lotus 1-2-3 was introduced in 1982 and Microsoft introduced Excel in 1985. Since that time the handset has evolved from the car phone, to the bag phone, to the brick phone to the flip phone and now the smartphone. Similarly the mobile networks have evolved from analogue AMPS (now called 1G), to digital 2G to 3G and 4G. But, for some insane reason we still use spreadsheets to track cell site deployments. Really??? We can develop a phone that can open and close our garage doors and turn on/off an HVAC system but we can’t create a decent workflow application to track deployments??? Mike Fraunces, Md7 President, wrote an article last year outlining how spreadsheets fail to deliver quality project details, process workflow and shorter cycle times. He also wrote a second one about how large enterprise software systems are too broad, lack the level of detail needed for a specific project and are not flexible enough to be customized for a specific, unique project, Md7 has developed our own tracking software – LiveTrack™. Designed with the complex needs of site acquisition in mind, LiveTrack brings multidisciplinary information and milestones to a central location, providing end-to-end management oversight to all aspects of the process. And we don’t have to wait for version 2.0 or 3.0 for upgrades. We meet with the customer to fully understand their concerns and needs and design the workflow tracking to meet those concerns and needs for each project, every time. With date and time stamping, quality data management and parallel process flows, LiveTrack shaves weeks off deployment forecasts.
- Decreasing pay points without increasing volume
Simply put, we need to break the cycle of giving a handful of sites to multiple site acquisition vendors, particularly based on price. In his book A Practical Guide to Training and Development, Michael Moskowitz (who also just happens to be the Director of Human Resources for Md7) writes an excellent summary of W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points for Management. Therein, Moskowitz summarizes the fourth of Deming’s 14 points as “ ‘Move toward a single supplier for any one item.’ Multiple suppliers means greater opportunity for variation in source product quality.” In other words, by assigning more sites to a single vendor you can begin to standardize the product and quality. There are only two types of companies that can afford to survive on really low prices. The first is the small operation with limited overhead. The smaller the operation the less the overhead (self-employed people only have to pay themselves) but they also lack the resources to handle large volume. The second are companies who can produce in large volumes. Yes, they have more overhead, but they also can handle large volume and afford to refine and continuously improve processes so that costs decrease simultaneously as quality increases. The second is what we should be looking for in the site acquisition world. When site acquisition is performed in large enough scale, you can afford the resources necessary to develop and implement detailed plans of execution, develop the software to track the hundreds of details that must be managed to get a site on-air, reduce cycle times and lower costs. Another way to achieve economies of scale would be to assign all work on a single site to a single site acquisition vendor. Too many times the site acquisition work for a technology upgrade is assigned to one company, the generator upgrade to another and the lease renewal to third. Let’s get smart and consolidate the work.
- If you proactively plan and follow that plan, you can reduce errors and revisions, reduce cycle time and thereby reduce the number of issues that throw off a site acquisition forecast.
- If you prepare high quality documents and submit them correctly the first time rather than drafts and partially completed work (just to smooth over a deployment call) you will get a much faster response from landlords and municipal employees than if you sit outside their office hoping to talk them into pushing your work to the head of the queue.
- Trashing your spreadsheet and getting some flexible software that can track each deployment will certainly lead to better forecasting and reduced cycle times.
- Reduce the number of site acquisition vendors and allow one or a few to focus on quality and consistency, thereby reducing costs.
If you do these four things, you will not be able to forecast every site with 100 percent accuracy, but you will be able to significantly increase your batting average.
Md7 and CalWA
Md7 is proud to announce the appointment of Lynn Whitcher to the Board of Directors of the California Wireless Association. The California Wireless Association (CalWA), a State Wireless Association (SWA) program under PCIA – The Wireless Infrastructure Association, promotes the wireless industry at the state and municipal level, educating consumers and public officials about the wireless industry and the critical role it plays in economy, safety, and society. California’s onerous zoning laws are well known for stalling site deployment and modification schedules, making CalWA’s mission of outreach critical to the future of wireless siting in the Golden State. CalWA’s leadership is comprised of representatives from wireless service providers, tower companies, law firms, and industry consultants.
Md7 has been a strong supporter of CalWA. Sean Maddox (Land Use) is Co-Chair of the CalWA Regulatory Committee, of which Ms. Whitcher, Cynthia Hanson (Land Use Counsel), and Daniel Goodrich (Land Use) are members. Ms. Hanson and Ms. Whitcher are assisting in the efforts to form a Legislative and Legal Affairs Subcommittee.
Ms. Whitcher also serves as Secretary on the Board of Directors of the Women’s Wireless Leadership Forum.
Over Half of All People Suffer from Nomophobia
By Tom Leddo
If you left home for work without your mobile phone would you turn around and go get it?
What about if you were just
going to the grocery store?
Actually I have done both.
Nomophobia – the fear of being out of mobile phone contact.
According to Wikipedia, Nomophobia stands for No Mobile Phone Phobia and is a phrase that was coined in a 2010 study by the UK Post Office which commissioned a UK-based research firm to study the anxieties suffered by mobile phone users.
Setting aside the question of why the postal office spends money on studies of this nature, some of the findings are very interesting.
- 58% of men and 47% of women suffer from nomophobia.
- 53% of mobile phone users feel anxious when they lose their phone, have a dead battery or are outside a reliable coverage area.
- One in two people never cut their phone off.
This study was completed in 2010. Surely in 2015 the iOS and Android devices have only driven these stats higher.
Business Insider (“BI”) published an article that cites Dr. David Greenfield at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine who connected smartphone addiction to dysregulation of dopamine. BI quotes Greenfield as saying, “Every time you get a notification from your phone, there’s a little elevation in dopamine that says you might have something that’s compelling, whether it is a text message from someone you like, an email, or anything. The thing is you don’t know what it’s going to be or when you are going to get it, and that’s what compels the brain to keep checking. It’s like the world’s smallest slot machine.”
Personally, I often experience phantom vibrations on my belt and reach for my phone even when it is not vibrating.
Having my mobile phone at work is a necessity. Not only do the majority of people who call me for work purposes use my mobile number rather than my desk phone, I get countless texts and emails throughout the workday.
Having my mobile phone at the grocery store… well I do use a grocery app for my shopping list and if I don’t have my phone handy I’ll end up going back to the store because I forgot something on my shopping list-app.
While I am completely capable of putting my phone in airplane mode when working-out or on vacation so I can still use it for music or as a heart-rate monitor without interruptions, I’ll be candid in saying that I feel a little naked if I don’t have my phone with me wherever I am and would probably go back to get it regardless just to keep it with me.
A Summary of Deming’s “14 Points for Management”
While Michael Moskowitz, Director of Human Resources for Md7 has an extensive background in human resources, he also has taught a course at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) for the last 26 years on “Training and Development” in the Business and Management Certificate Program.
Michael wrote a book specifically for this class entitled A Practical Guide to Training and Development. Michael has incorporated many of the lessons from this book into the training programs at Md7. The follow is an excerpt from this book.
Edwards Deming was born in Sioux City, Iowa, and earned a B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Wyoming, an M.S. from the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. from Yale University, after which he interned at Bell Laboratories. Both graduate degrees were in mathematics and physics. Deming went to Japan after World War II to help set up a census of the Japanese population. While he was there, he taught statistical process control (SPC) methods to Japanese business leaders and engineers. SPC, pioneered by Walter Shewhart in the early 1920s and applied by Deming in the United States during World War II, is an effective method of monitoring a process by collecting data at various points within the process and analyzing variations in output. The end result is manufacturing high-quality goods while reducing waste, increasing the likelihood of customer satisfaction because problems will not be passed along to the customer (or end-user) of the product and /or service.
Deming witnessed Japan’s extraordinary economic growth, watching them put into practice the methods he had taught. He stressed that improved quality would result in reduced expenses, increased productivity and market share. In 1960 he was awarded a medal by the Japanese Emperor and is regarded by many observers as having more impact on Japanese business than any individual not of Japanese descent. He later became a professor at New York University and a consultant in Washington, D.C., to government and business leaders.
From 1979 to 1982 the Ford Motor Company incurred more than $3 billion in debt. Deming went to work for the company in 1981. After adopting Deming’s principles as well as focusing on changing management behavior and organizational culture, Ford became the most profitable American auto company, exceeding the earnings of arch rival General Motors for the first time since the 1920s.
In the midst of his work with Ford, Deming published Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position (1982), which was renamed Out of the Crisis (1986) and included his now famous 14 Points for Management. He believed that these philosophies, if adopted by the manufacturing sector would save the United States from industrial doom at the hands of the Japanese. Paraphrasing Deming’s 14 points, he stated the following:
- Create constancy of purpose toward improvement.
Replace short-term reaction with long-term planning to be competitive and stay in business. Decide to whom top management is responsible.
- Adopt the new philosophy.
No longer accept current level of delays, mistakes, defective materials, and defective workmanship. The implication is that management should actually adopt this philosophy, and a philosophy of cooperation between employees, management, customers, and suppliers, rather than merely expecting the workforce to adopt a new philosophy.
- Cease dependence on inspection.
Instead, require statistical evidence that quality is built in. If variation is reduced, the need to inspect manufactured items for defects is unnecessary because there won’t be any. Prevent defects instead of trying to detect them.
- Move toward a single supplier for any one item.
Multiple suppliers means greater opportunity for variation in source product quality. Depend on meaningful measures of quality along with price. Eliminate suppliers that cannot qualify with statistical evidence of quality.
- Improve constantly and forever.
Constantly strive to reduce variation. Find problems.
- Institute training on the job.
If people are inadequately trained, they will not all work the same way, and this will introduce variation.
- Institute leadership.
There is a difference between leadership and supervision, the latter being quota and target based. Shift to a focus on quality which will automatically improve productivity. Management must take immediate action when alerted to process problems.
- Drive out fear.
Management by fear is counter-productive in the long term because it prevents employees from acting in the organization’s best interests.
- Break down barriers between departments.
Producing a quality product and/or service for the external customer is a team effort that requires cooperation inside the organization. The concept of the internal customer is reinforced when each department serves other departments that use its outputs.
- Eliminate slogans.
It’s not people who make the most mistakes – it’s the process they are working within. Harassing the workforce with exhortations without improving the processes they use is counter-productive.
- Eliminate management by objectives.
Production targets encourage the delivery of a quota of quality products and services without regard to their quality.
- Remove barriers to pride of workmanship.
Pride of workmanship increases employee satisfaction.
- Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.
- The transformation is everyone’s job.
Create a top management structure that will push everyday on the previous thirteen points.
Deming received criticism for his 14 Points for Management because he did not include implementation tools to help bring his management philosophy to fruition. When asked why he didn’t provide this sort of assistance, his response was “You’re the manager; you figure it out.”