Forming the Groundwork: Communications Infrastructure Reliability Near and Far

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by Mike Koch, Motorola Solutions

Providing reliable energy in a way that satisfies customers and meets government regulations is no small task for the electric utility industry. Most equipment and infrastructure required to deliver services is spread throughout a large geographical region, including inside buildings and out in the elements, which can cause numerous inspection and maintenance issues.

The workforce is devoted to inspecting and maintaining the many assets associated with electricity delivery and consumption. With an aging distribution infrastructure, maintenance that is not performed on time or is poorly executed could threaten residents’ and field technicians’ safety. Communications with the mobile workforce is essential and a private digital radio communications infrastructure can be the foundation for providing reliable customer service.

A strong private radio communication system allows dispatchers and field crews to clearly respond to any request, despite environmental challenges, such as loud background noise, rough terrain and extreme temperatures. Unlike shared public systems, private digital radio communication systems are designed to account for the specific capacity and provide a strong voice quality, no matter workers’ locations.

In addition, digital radio networks support integrated data application options, thus increasing the overall value and return on investment (ROI) over traditional analog radio systems. This confirms employee efficiency and helps ensure crews’ and customers’ safety in crisis situations.

Reliable Voice and Data in Challenging Environments

Environments such as tunnels, high rise buildings and sub-basements can create unique challenges for wireless communications. In addition, when utility poles topple, power lines plummet and outages occur in rural areas, work crews have plenty of territory to cover while they respond quickly to repair and restore power. Supervisors who oversee workers in an expansive rural region count on private radio systems to operate continuously. Instant dispatch and highly reliable communication are essential to managing field crews..

With integrated seamless voice and data, digital technology is easy to use and can deliver up to twice the capacity of an analog system, allowing it to meet growing communication needs.

Digital systems support the industry standard Internet Protocol (IP) interface enabling communication from fixed data source like RTUs, as well as other machine-to-machine (m2M) or mobile devices. Manager efficiency is also increased because digital systems allow anywhere and anytime access to key information–meaning that managers are no longer out of touch with business while they are away from their desks. This ensures that customer service levels are maintained and regulatory requirements are met.

Safety, Security Around the Clock

Worker safety is important. When workers have real-time access to information, they can perform jobs more safely. Information about downed wires or problem areas made available on a tablet or confirmation through the voice system that lines are de-energized keeps field workers informed and able to avoid problems.

Traditional analog radio systems are prone to drop-offs in coverage as they lose signal strength. They also are subject to frequent interruptions and interference from static and noise. Utility workers often operate in loud and harsh outdoor environments and can’t afford to miss a call or misunderstand a message.

The importance of instant communication and being able to contact the office or other key personnel while inside or away from the truck, also is critically important to ensuring worker safety. Whether it’s to notify the office or coworkers about needed supplies or a more important notification of needed help in a dangerous situation, instant communications is vital. Crews in a truck heading to a job or in the midst of a critical repair need a communication system that can provide reliable hands-free tools, allowing them to focus on the job. This is where accessories come in. Important accessories include visor microphones for hands-free operation, keypad microphones to transmit text messages back to dispatch or heavy duty headsets that provide improved audio and hearing protection in extremely noisy environments.

Why You Should Invest

A private digital two-way radio communication system provides the ability to transmit data without cellular cost or monthly expense. These radios have additional functions that can do more than save money, however.

Digital two-way radio systems provide a path for organizations to enhance and extend their IT networks into the field. By acquiring new communications platforms that work with emerging mobile applications, the mobile workforce has the foundation to add new, advanced capabilities.

Radios can automatically notify dispatch if the device falls at a certain angle and rate of speed, or if there is no activity during a given amount of time. If workers are unable to call for help, their radio will. In addition, network monitoring can manage and report on system’s usage to minimize downtime and ensure optimal performance.

Utility worker efficiency depends on expanded and reliable technological capabilities. New mobile technologies and networking capabilities can support some minor changes that could result in major benefits, including shorter worker response times and greater efficiency.

Stay in Touch

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Managers must be able to connect with their mobile workforce no matter where the job takes them. A strong private radio system allows mobile workers to not only talk to one another or the main facility, but also to use data applications that make their jobs more efficient and safe.

To provide better, faster service, many radios are equipped with integrated GPS modules. When used with a location tracking application, locating and managing people and assets is more efficient. For example, utilities can quickly respond to incidents by locating the nearest employee and dispatching him or her to the scene. This feature also makes it easier to manage fleets and more efficiently map drive routes.

Utilities can develop custom applications to work exactly the way they work or they can leverage applications that are already developed. Dispatch consoles to manage fleets, network monitoring for system maintenance and improvement, work order ticket applications, email gateways and more features are available.

Mike Koch is the Energy & Utility Vertical Principal for Motorola Solutions. Koch has been with Motorola for 24 years and has focused on wireless data communication solutions for the critical infrastructure markets. Koch is also on the board of directors for UTC’s Smart Networks Council.

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