GUIDE: Evaluating and Upgrading Your Traffic Communication Infrastructure

Whether you are auditing current traffic department telecoms or considering improvements and upgrades, there is a lot to consider. Hardware technology and systems have evolved dramatically over the years, and many agencies are working with outdated equipment and/or hybrid systems.

And while a system might be working just fine, failing to understand the true cost of our communication infrastructures means we can’t make informed decisions about whether they’re worth keeping or upgrading. An upgrade might be an up-front expense that actually saves your agency money in the future.

How do you know if you should keep your current communication infrastructure or upgrade it? With a basic understanding of the pros and cons of each medium and protocol, as well as how the hardware and technology has evolved, you can design and implement the system you need.

5 Keys to Evaluating Your Communication Infrastructure

Many agencies don’t know the true cost of their communication infrastructures and/or aren’t sure how to fully evaluate potential upgrades. There are five keys to consider when auditing or upgrading your telecoms.

1. The Cost and Effort of Installation and Maintenance

Whether you’re evaluation or planning upgrades, there’s more to consider than just the costs that are quoted on paper or the regular bills you get for services and/or equipment leasing.

Take into account the cost of maintenance on your existing system and, if applicable, the upgrades you’re considering. Cabled systems, for example, often require more maintenance than wireless ones.

Finally, weigh the effort of maintenance for both current and upgraded systems, as well as the effort of installing any upgrades. Dated hardware and physical systems are often more difficult to maintain, requiring more hours or specialized expertise, which translate into dollars down the road. If you’re looking into upgrades, don’t overlook the logistics of what it will take to install new hardware and/or systems.

2. Longevity of the Solution

A medium or protocol might be working now, but how much longer can you support it? Many older systems are being phased out and with those transitions, the knowledge and expertise to troubleshoot them is becoming limited as well. Telecom companies don’t always offer support on old models or dated systems.

If you’re planning updates, are you future-proofing the infrastructure? You can make changes to bring your systems up to speed, but telecom technology evolves quickly. If you have the budget and the resources to go a little “overboard” on your tech now, it’s usually worth it to future-proof your system for years to come.

3. Environmental Impacts

How is your current system impacted by the environment that it’s in? Was it built for the kind of weather conditions that you frequently experience, or are you running a lot of maintenance to make it work?

As communications equipment and systems continue to get smarter, many agencies are surprised to find that some are also getting tougher. The RUGGEDCOM system, for example, is communication equipment specifically designed for harsh environments—from Pacific Northwest storms to Southwestern deserts.

And when you start to make plans for upgrades, the environment you’re working in is a major factor. Trenching is required for cable and fiber optics, for example, but might be very difficult near overpasses, etc.

4. Necessary IT Staff Support

Older serial networks don’t take much tech support. Many engineers like keeping the traffic department’s infrastructure completely within their department, and that’s understandable.

Ethernet systems, however, need a network administrator for setup, troubleshooting, firewall rules, etc. That’s not a bad thing, but it does introduce another layer to consider.

5. Recurring Fees

Finally, as you pull together numbers and considerations to evaluate, dig up all the recurring fees your department is paying. Some of these have been on the books for so long that they’re baked into the budget and we hardly notice them.

Dial-up and cellular services, of course, have recurring fees. If you’re leasing copper or fiber optics from a local telecom company, what is that costing?

The Evolution of Traffic Communication Mediums

This technology has evolved dramatically since the days of visiting a physical field master, and agencies often don’t realize how far ahead the industry has moved.

Dial-Up

Dial-up was a huge benefit to traffic communications when it came along, and it has served our industry well. Dial-up allowed engineers to dial into the field master machine remotely, which changed traffic management forever.

Today, dial-up is considered legacy technology, although many agencies still use it.

Pros:

  • Perfectly capable of transmitting small packets of data
  • Can be used in remote locations

Cons:

  • Slow, compared to updated solutions
  • Cannot transmit larger data packets, so it does not support video feeds, etc.
  • Sessions cannot be left open 24/7, so they miss a lot of data.
  • Limited support for dial-up systems

Twisted Pair Copper

Twisted pair copper is still commonly used between signals, but it is also considered legacy hardware by most manufacturers and service providers.

The main challenges of twisted pair copper are that:

  • Copper degrades over time, so it’s never future-proof.
  • Support is limited if you’re leasing it, similar to dial-up technologies.

The good news is that twisted pair copper can easily be upgraded to ethernet with ethernet over copper (EoC) devices.

Fiber Optics

Fiber optic cables were a huge step forward over twisted-pair copper, and remain a reasonable solution for some agencies today. Their functionality and capabilities allow use by multiple departments, which makes IT happy and earns more support and buy-in across departments.

Pros:

  • Reliable functionality
  • High bandwidth
  • Supports serial or ethernet protocols
  • Can serve multiple agency departments
  • Lots of IT support and buy-in

Cons:

  • Trenching is costly and can be complicated
  • Requires a healthy conduit
  • Leasing fiber optics can be expensive
  • Specs are notoriously complicated

Wireless Radio

Wireless solutions ushered in a new day for transportation telecoms. It has opened doors for ITS and smart cities in ways that many engineers never dreamed possible at the start of their careers.

Pros:

  • No trenching and no need for conduit
  • Ample support and expertise in a new generation of engineers
  • Lots of support and buy-in from the entire agency
  • Hardware has evolved to support wireless connectivity in every condition.

Cons:

  • More bandwidth can add additional costs

Against the cost of more bandwidth, consider that you might already have a wireless network if your agency hosts a city-wide broadband network. In those cases, IT can usually set aside some space exclusively for the traffic network, to save cost by leveraging existing infrastructure.

If your agency doesn’t currently have that kind of network, installing one can earn a lot of support from every department. It’s a network that transcends just the traffic department and provides the public with more uses from a single infrastructure.

This is a great example of one way to spend a little more now, if you can, to future-proof your telecoms. Cabled solutions may work fine for now, but they are only becoming more obsolete.

The latest 10 gig switches from Siemens RUGGEDCOM, the RST916C and RST916P are designed to provide reliable connectivity for high bandwidth applications, helping you create a long-lasting and powerful network.

The Evolution of Telecom Protocols

As technology advances, so too do the protocols that run on them.

  • Dial-Up — Many newer devices simply can’t work on dial-up. Traditionally, a field master could set up and troubleshoot a dial-up communication. Now, fewer and fewer engineers know how to maintain dial-up, because controllers are moving away from it.
  • Serial — Serial protocols are still very common, but probably not for long. They provide a very narrow channel, because they can only transmit so much data at a time. IT support capabilities are phasing out.
  • Ethernet — Ethernet, on the other hand, is a very wide channel, capable of transmitting a lot of data to multiple devices. It is fast, reliable, and much of the hardware is plug-and-play. Lots of IT support is available and most new, browser-based interfaces work over ethernet connections.

More Modern Telecom Networking Strategies

Two additional innovations are worth mentioning, as you evaluate current systems and consider upgrades.

Mesh Networks (vs. Point-to-Point Networks)

Traditional point-to-point networks are simple chains of line-of-sight connections. This restricts where these points can be established and leaves the entire network at risk if one link of that chain is broken.

Mesh networks, however, are a newer concept that offer self-healing communication networks. Mesh networks create a redundant wireless path of communication, and if one path gets blocked, the system will automatically find another route.

Mesh networks can also be used across the agency, which can help get buy-in from other departments. They are not yet supported on all devices, though, so make sure your hardware is compatible.

MiMo

MiMo expands the capacity of a wireless link using “multiple input, multiple output” via three or four radios. It does not require line-of-sight, which makes this technology much more adaptable. The size of the larger antennas are sometimes a challenge, however, in strong winds and inclement weather.

Best Practices for Upgrading Communication Infrastructures

A couple of best practices will make current or future upgrades much smoother:

  1. Lay all the conduit. Try to establish a policy within your agency to lay conduit during any construction project. If roads are being dug up anyway, conduit should go in the ground while it’s accessible.
  2. Install firewalls with ethernet. IT and the traffic department have not historically been best of friends, but it’s essential to make it secure.

Communication Infrastructure: Finding the True Cost

The costs required to maintain existing telecoms are often difficult to see, because they’re scattered in several places. If you haven’t audited the expenses recently, though, it’s a worthy exercise. A system that seems to run just fine, again, could actually be costing agencies more than it needs to.

Upgrading to ethernet is made much easier by PoE devices, and the expense for bandwidth might not be so bad compared to what it actually costs to maintain existing legacy systems. Wireless systems also have implications beyond the traffic department, so buy-in and support for an upgrade might be easier than they initially seem.

The team at Western Systems has been helping agencies across the western states upgrade legacy systems for years. To learn more about what an upgrade might look like in your agency, contact Western Systems online or give us a call at 425.438.1133.