Introduction

Cell Site Automation is a logical and modern extension of what was once referred to by telecom network operators as remote site management or “site alarms”. Years ago there was a general class of products referred to as remote terminal units (RTU’s). These units were primarily used to monitor contact closures from other pieces of equipment like microwave radios or DC rectifiers. Over time these devices became more IP-network oriented as the equipment that the RTU’s monitored also began to become more IP-based.

Asentria’s SiteBoss units are now based on an underlying Linux operating system, and are significantly more powerful than earlier RTU units. At customer request, Asentria has needed to interface to all types of equipment at a communication site. Based on customer need, more than forty interface cards are available to be slotted into a SiteBoss unit to enable it to communicate with and gather data from site devices. A SiteBoss unit could now easily have valuable and detailed data from and control of generators, rectifiers, HVAC, RFID door access control systems, cameras, and other systems.

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Benefits of Cell Site Automation
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Improved Network Reliability

⦁ Real-time cell site health monitoring during mass power outages, weather events, and other crisis.
⦁ Extend site life during crisis due to intelligent management of site energy usage.
⦁ Improve failure rate levels and Mean Time to Repair (MTTR) through complete monitoring of cell site alarm conditions.
⦁ Improve network uptime due to improved physical site security.
⦁ Manage mobile assets like Cell on Wheels (COW’s) during large-scale weather events

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Reduced Costs

⦁ Lower maintenance/service costs for HVAC and generators. Maintenance/refueling done based on need rather than a schedule.
⦁ Lowered number/cost of service visits through remote network access/remote DC reboot
⦁ Energy savings through centralized management of HVAC
⦁ Intelligent Truck Rolls – Site visits made with prior knowledge of site conditions from SiteBoss.

Why Cell Site Automation?

Cell Site Automation is a logical and modern extension of what was once referred to by telecom network operators as remote site management or “site alarms”. Years ago there was a general class of products referred to as remote terminal units (RTU’s). These units were primarily used to monitor contact closures from other pieces of equipment like microwave radios or DC rectifiers. Over time these devices became more IP-network oriented as the equipment that the RTU’s monitored also began to become more IP-based.

Asentria’s SiteBoss units are now based on an underlying Linux operating system, and are significantly more powerful than earlier RTU units. At customer request, Asentria has needed to interface to all types of equipment at a communication site. Based on customer need, more than forty interface cards are available to be slotted into a SiteBoss unit to enable it to communicate with and gather data from site devices. A SiteBoss unit could now easily have valuable and detailed data from and control of generators, rectifiers, HVAC, RFID door access control systems, cameras, and other systems.

The reasons for undertaking Cell Site Automation are also clear. Network operators are faced with downward price pressures and a need to do more with fewer resources. There is a need to run the networks less expensively through reductions in use of power and more effective management of sites with fewer site visits. Hurricanes, fires, winter storms and other crisis events have exposed weaknesses in networks, and have shown the need for new strategies to “harden” network sites.

The competitive edge of cell site automation

It may start as a what seems like a straightforward solution to a relatively simple problem.
“What solution is there for knowing the diesel fuel levels of our generators at our cell sites?”

Using a SiteBoss, this is a relatively simple task to accomplish. For almost no additional effort or cost you could also use a contact closure, Modbus, or Ethernet connection to gather other data related to the generator. A simple “gen run” contact on the generator could give valuable data. A generator smart controller could give you fifty or more other variables. With very little further effort you could take control of the generator automated transfer switch (ATS).

You now have the data to re-fuel generators when they are low on fuel instead of on a schedule, and be better able to manage diesel re-fueling during a crisis. You know actual generator run time. You could use this data to “de-average” generator maintenance, only sending your third party generator contractors to do maintenance upon certain hours run or expedite a visit based on problems indicated from the generator controller.

Controlling the ATS you can control exercising the generators. With knowledge of an incoming hurricane you could exercise all generators in the affected region to see if any generators fail to start in preparation for the storm. You can control regular generator exercising to only occur when it doesn’t conflict with the US Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air mandates or local noise ordinances.

Now what if you made simple additional connections from the SiteBoss to the DC plant? To the HVAC controller? To a temp probe? You could create automation to extend the site life per liter of diesel fuel with just two additional Ethernet connections and a SiteBoss temp probe.

The SiteBoss Appliances

The SiteBoss appliance is a Cell Site Automation tool.

The SiteBoss simplifies and centralizes all the data from a wide range of different makes and models of equipment at your site, giving visibility and control of those systems. If you want to start your generators remotely, the SiteBoss removes the problem of you having to understand what particular make and model of ATS is at each site, as the function to start the generator is the same within every SiteBoss. This benefit of centralizing the control from a wide variety makes and models of power, security, and environmental sub-systems is common to anyone that uses the SiteBoss.

The resulting competitive benefit of Cell Site Automation, however, is largely unique to each network operator. How to use the technology to differentiate your network as more resilient and efficient than your competitors is up to your own ingenuity in how you use the tool.

The SiteBoss appliance is designed to be:

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Flexible

A primary challenge in doing Cell Site Automation is to easily deploy a solution that can interface to all the power, security, and environmental sub-systems at your remote sites. The SiteBoss has modular interface options to enable the SiteBoss to match whatever power, security, and environmental sub-systems we encounter at a site. Different sites can be addressed just by switching cards in a unit.

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Usable

The SiteBoss is an appliance. It has a web-based UI that reflects the various values it is reading. It is protocol-based, and designed to be integrated into software tools already in use in your network. Asentria strives to make the SiteBoss as easy to use as possible, but much of the reason it is easy to use is that we simplify the challenges of cell site automation by approaching it as a simple appliance, not as a vast new dedicated system.

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Non-Proprietary

The SiteBoss has evolved into such a strong appliance because we don’t split functionality between our own proprietary centralized software and the appliance. All of our development is focused on features that are built into the unit. We can and do provide software, but the SiteBoss is not dependent on any particular software to be fully functional. We use SNMP, RestFUL API, browser-based UI, and user accessible scripting languages. We believe it is preferable to use NMS and data visualization software from companies that specialize in that software instead of a mandatory software that is necessary to make the edge appliance fully functional, particularly if that software is already paid for and in your existing network.

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Purpose-Built

The SiteBoss belongs in telecom sites. Thirty years of experience means we’ve eliminated hundreds of “edge case” problems. Products not specific to telecom sites introduce many unanticipated headaches. Headaches we’ve already addressed.

The tip of the iceberg

The SiteBoss is extremely well suited to the telecom sites where it is installed.

Asentria has done years of integration work to the types of devices found at these sites. We consider it a primary responsibility to integrate to anything found in these sites, normalize the data from all these devices, and then enable communication of data back and forth from some centralized location. Historically this might have meant a simple contact closure generating an SNMP trap to a network management system, but now the possibilities are so much greater. A SiteBoss in a modern shelter or cabinet might have access to literally hundreds of variables being generated by smart controllers at a site. There are current examples of a SiteBoss being interfaced to AC meters, generators, HVAC systems, door access control systems, rectifiers, battery monitoring systems, cameras, and even service providing equipment like routers, microwave, or RAN equipment.

Asentria has recently implemented RESTful API functionality in our units, which opens up entirely new possibilities regarding telemetry. It is now possible to deliver data from cell sites to build site telemetry databases. Using this data and off-the-shelf visualization software it is possible, for example, to create maps of power usage vs. HVAC run time, HVAC set points, and site temperature. The SiteBoss can control HVAC set points as well, so a human operator could view these maps and investigate outliers for excessive power use, and remotely change set points of the HVAC across the entire network. In the not distant future it is possible to see where processes could be automated to “tune” the network without human intervention. There are no technical barriers to doing this today.

Network operators have an opportunity using cell site automation to create competitive differentiation for themselves. Cell site automation pairs well with existing initiatives to “harden” networks or achieve power efficiencies. The SiteBoss is an appliance that any operator could own, but the operational processes that are built around the SiteBoss are owned by the customer.

What to consider when evaluating a Cell Site Automation solution?

Understand what is available and what other operators are doing – Are you aware of all that could be done, and what IS actually being done by different operators worldwide?

Understand your current network – We often hear people say, “we have smart controllers in our rectifier, generator, HVAC, so we don’t need a different controller. In fact, we already have too many controllers”. Most telecom networks have a wide range of equipment makes and ages. A single make of diesel generators could have generations of controllers spanning from those with simple contacts and relays, serial-based MODBUS interfaces, to Ethernet based controllers. Most large networks will have multiple makes of generators as well. Proprietary controllers only manage their own make of equipment. The challenge of making all the different power, security, and environmental equipment equally manageable in a single interface is largely why cell site automation exists.

Are you currently using an under-performing remote terminal unit (RTU)? – There was a time when it was cutting edge to convert simple contact closures to SNMP. In 2018 a specialized “alarm RTU” unit ought to be able to do so much more. Has your current vendor for “alarming” continued to evolve their product? Are your alarming vendors able to interface to all the power, security, and environmental devices on your network? Beyond just making the physical connections to other controllers, are they willing to do the integration work? Are the controllers tied to some expensive legacy central software in order to fully function?

Are you using non-specific unsupported devices or devices intended for some other purpose to manage cell sites? It is possible to use PLC or PLC-like devices for doing simple functions at a cell site, but most often these generic devices perform poorly without unreasonable development as they are just as likely to be used to manage a manufacturing process as some task in a telecom site.

Base Station End-of-Life Issues – Do you have contact closure alarms that are being terminated to an older generation base station that may be scheduled for de-commissioning? Cell site automation solutions can simplify the transfer of those alarms from the old base station to a new alarm solution that is not affected by future changes in radio equipment.

Taking the long view – Will the solution expand or adapt to changes at your sites over time? Your equipment at the site will change. Can you switch out physical interfaces on a solution to match the equipment you need to manage? Will you be tied to a proprietary central software to manage the cell site automation hardware you have at the sites?

Cases

The examples below are representative of what can be done with our units, but many other automations are being used beyond these examples. All the examples below utilize one of Asentria’s SiteBoss Linux-based appliances as the central part of the application.

N. American Mobile Network Operator – 18000 sites
A large wireless operator deployed an Asentria SiteBoss that included a wireless modem and DC power distribution in their nationwide cabinet rollout. The wireless modem enabled out-of-band access. If microwave backhaul failed the site could still be communicated with. The DC power distribution panel had switchable circuits, so once troubleshooting occurred the network operations center could reboot problem equipment without a truck roll. This enabled this operator to use a smaller field service force.

A problem occurred in winter in the US Midwest where AC grid power was lost and batteries fully discharged, leaving sites in a powered down state. When grid power was restored some equipment was damaged due to the equipment being powered on while still being extremely cold. Using the SiteBoss, a new solution was created that was initially thought of as a shut-down process, but eventually was referred to as “Load Shedding”. The SiteBoss unit would continually and autonomously query the rectifier for presence of AC grid power and state of battery charge. If AC power was lost, the SiteBoss would begin taking its decisions at different levels of battery discharge, beginning by switching off equipment that was considered less critical. This saved battery power and extended the run time of the site. Ultimately, once it became clear that the site was likely to run out the batteries completely, the SiteBoss would shut itself off along with the rest of the site. The SiteBoss would shut itself down with its relays in a state prepared for AC power to be restored. Once power was restored the SiteBoss, which has a wide operating temperature range, would power back up along with only the heater. Once the SiteBoss detected that temperature was above a certain level, the SiteBoss would begin to restore to each additional site device in a timed and logical order.

N. American Mobile Network Operator – 10000 sites
More information on this application is available in our “Managing Generators in a Telecom Network” document.
After hurricanes in the northeastern United States, a large mobile network operator decided that they needed better and more actionable data regarding generator fuel levels. Initially they were seeking a very small device, which Asentria can provide, to just give fuel levels. After working with the SiteBoss and seeing greater potential for the device than just fuel levels, it was decided that the SiteBoss could also collect significant data about the generators related to alarming and maintenance. Eventually the SiteBoss was also tied to the automatic transfer switch (ATS) to allow centralized control of running the generator network. Asentria provided extensive integration service to make the SiteBoss a single common interface to multiple generator models and makes. The SiteBoss is now deployed with diesel, LP, natural gas roof-top generators, and on mobile cell-on-wheels (COW’s) or generator-on-a-truck (GOAT’s).
This work solved several real-world problems. It is possible to exercise generators prior to a known incoming weather event like a hurricane, identifying problems with generators in the days immediately prior to hurricane landfall. During a crisis the network operation center has visibility into fuel to prioritize re-supply. During non-crisis periods the US Environmental Protection Agency will generate fines for exercising diesel generators during high smog events in urban areas. The SiteBoss managing the ATS allowed for the network operation center to suppress exercising the generators if smog levels were too high. Additionally it was found that the SiteBoss’ network corrected clocks allowed for accurate timing of generator exercising, preventing problems where a dumb timer would allow a generator to run outside of approved noise ordinance schedules. The SiteBoss can also collect data on generator run-times, allowing for maintenance cycles to be changed from being based on a time period to service based on actual generator run-time.

Middle East Public Safety Network – 300 sites
Public safety networks have somewhat different needs than other networks. Network resiliency is a paramount concern. As part of integration to the generator, and as the operator began to better understand the capabilities of the SiteBoss, a new automation possibility was outlined and deployed. The SiteBoss was interfaced to the HVAC system, the generator, and the rectifier. When the site was running on the generator, the site operated similarly to when it was on grid power, with all equipment in operation. When running on batteries, the HVAC system would not operate.

Some sites in a country-wide deployment were in extremely remote and distant locations. In the event of power loss it was of primary importance that the site operate as long as possible until a fix could be implemented. An automation was created so that the SiteBoss would watch site temperature and battery discharge levels from the DC rectifier. The site would operate on batteries as long as state of charge of the batteries was high enough and temperature was low enough. If not, the generator would run until batteries hit a high state of charge and site was sufficiently cool. This cycling enabled diesel fuel at a site to be considerably extended.

N. American Mobile Network Operator – Trial
A large wireless operators has deployed a trial that is a good example of what is possible now using existing SiteBoss technology. A SiteBoss is integrated to the DC plant, generator, DC boost converters, temp sensors, and the overall network (for connectivity checks). When first installed the SiteBoss auto-configures certain of its own characteristics based on what it discovers attached to its Ethernet ports. In addition to basic alarming and telemetry data from these systems, the SiteBoss performs several automated processes. One example is radios being “hibernated” when no backhaul is present to preserve site life. Another is to control site power as a site comes out of a low-voltage disconnect state by controlling DC plant float voltage.

The Future

The SiteBoss is extremely well suited to the telecom sites where it is installed.

Asentria has done years of integration work to the types of devices found at these sites. We consider it a primary responsibility to integrate to anything found in these sites, normalize the data from all these devices, and then enable communication of data back and forth from some centralized location. Historically this might have meant a simple contact closure generating an SNMP trap to a network management system, but now the possibilities are so much greater, with the SiteBoss capable of gathering data on potentially hundreds of variables.

A SiteBoss in a modern shelter or cabinet might have access to literally hundreds of variables being generated by smart controllers at a site. There are current examples of a SiteBoss being interfaced to AC meters, generators, HVAC systems, door access control systems, rectifiers, battery monitoring systems, cameras, and even service providing equipment like routers, microwave, or RAN equipment.

Asentria has recently implemented RESTful API functionality in our units, which opens up entirely new possibilities regarding telemetry. It is now possible to deliver data from cell sites to build site telemetry databases. Using this data and off-the-shelf visualization software it is possible, for example, to create maps of power usage vs. HVAC run time, HVAC set points, and site temperature. The SiteBoss can control HVAC set points as well, so a human operator could view these maps and investigate outliers for excessive power use, and remotely change set points of the HVAC. In the near future it is possible to see where processes could be automated to “tune” the network without human intervention. There are no technical barriers to doing this today.

Network operators have an opportunity using cell site automation to create competitive differentiation for themselves. The SiteBoss is an appliance that any operator could own, but the operational processes that are built around the SiteBoss are owned by the customer. Cell site automation pairs well with existing initiatives to “harden” networks or achieve power efficiencies.

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