How To's, Strategy

How to think about choosing linear asset management software

This is the first of three entries in our July series on linear asset management tools. Here, we introduce the theme and provide some advice on what to consider when you’re comparing different software packages. Next week, we’ll discuss an example of linear asset management in practice in Washington, D.C. Finally, in our third entry, we’ll discuss one program in depth that is geared specifically toward meeting the needs of community broadband providers.

It’s great to offer your community high-speed broadband, whether you’re doing so because your utility can provide broadband more cheaply than private ISPs, or your community has been overlooked by those same ISPs. But planning and building the network are just the beginning of the challenges ahead, and as demand grows and your network grows with it, you’ll need to manage your linear assets – your cable, fiber, hubs, etc. Doing so can be complicated and time-consuming – particularly if you’d like to track both your assets and your customers’ details to estimate bandwidth demand growth and resolve future problems, which I recommend.

Broadly, there are three choices to make with respect to linear asset management: Buy, build, or do-it-yourself (DIY). Do you scrape by with paper maps and Excel spreadsheets in combination with a free, online map service, such as Google My Maps or Google Earth? Do you hire your own software developers to build exactly what you want? Or do you invest in a dedicated software package, potentially incurring high up-front financial and learning costs?

If your network is sufficiently large, it’s worth investing in a dedicated linear asset management program, but how should you choose? After all, there are a plethora of programs. Just off the top of my head (or, actually, from my notes), there are: 3-GIS, OSP Insight, ArcFM, Mapcom, SAP, ESRI, MarketView, BitGrid, Bentley AutoDesk, IBM Maximo, and the forthcoming Utility LINE product. And the list goes on.

So what do you need to know in order to choose a software package? First, importantly, does the software focus on the needs of municipal or community broadband telecoms, or are the firms that produce these programs pitching them to telecoms overall? If the latter, prices are likely to be high and while the programs have a broad variety of functions, your engineers might end up sinking a lot of time into learning how to carry out functions that aren’t necessary for managing your network. The fact is, most existing packages pitch to telecoms broadly speaking, rather than focusing on community broadband services.

Here are a few questions to think about:

1. Are extra, unnecessary features cluttering up the software – and potentially raising the price? There is virtue in planning ahead for future needs, but if you’re budget-constrained, get what you need, not what you don’t (yet). For instance, do you need hundreds of tools with thousands of options to produce unlimited map-based products geared toward trained GIS personnel, or is it enough that the program integrates with Google Maps API and makes data entry easy?

2. Related to the point about bells, whistles, and complexity: How difficult is it to learn and use the main functions – those functions that are most necessary and useful for your needs? Could you sit down after a couple hours’ training on Day 1, enter geo-referenced data, and produce maps – or do you need a GIS Master’s degree just to understand the icons?

    • If possible, have a comprehensive demo done for your staff. Ask questions, and get clear, straightforward answers. Remember all those buggy, hysteria-inducing programs and operating systems with oodles of extra “cool” features that people worldwide have been encouraged to adopt sight unseen since the advent of computers (I’m talking about you, Windows Vista!)…
    • Don’t think, just answer: Is the Apple TV or Sony Google TV remote easier to use? If you said Apple, which has four buttons, you’re right. And entertainment content is about the same on both services. Don’t fall for bells and whistles when all you need are the basic beasts of burden. Now  think about it – Which of these looks easier to learn? If prices and core content are comparable, which will you buy?

Credit: Sophie Wong, Sophie Wong,

3. Finally, does the software vendor provide satisfactory customer and tech support? Even if you’re an experienced manager or technology purchaser, you’ll need to think hard about tradeoffs between product cost and customer support. Will the software company’s support staff help you with data loading, initial digital migration, and other start-up and ongoing tech management tasks? If so, for how long, and at what fixed or variable rates? Can you pay for exactly what you need and no more, or do you need to purchase full support packages? (Not to imply that you should never purchase full support packages – after all, nobody can predict all challenges coming down the pike…)

If you can get good customer and tech support from the software company while keeping purchase or subscription prices within your budget, then that product, all else equal, is superior to its competitors – even if it’s a bit more expensive. Believe me, down the line you’ll be thankful for up front and ongoing regular customer support. In short, don’t waste your staff’s time and your organization’s money! More expensive and comprehensive programs tend to be flashy and attractive, but decide carefully whether or not they’re easy to learn, have features you don’t need that slow the program and/or raise the price,  and are produced by companies that will provide you with adequate support.

And, yes, that’s the kind of obvious advice that bears repeating over and over again… 😉

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