CPS Energy Creates an Energized Mobility Strategy

By Jason Scarlett, CPS Energy, and Chuck Roark, Motorola

Many organizations in the public sector have turned to mobile computing to improve the efficiency of their workforce. The next logical step is wireless applications to ensure that mission critical data is available wherever, whenever. The quick fix may seem to be simply ripping out a hodge-podge of old gear and buying new equipment. But San Antonio-based CPS Energy decided to optimize its network with an overall mobility strategy that would grow with the company, maximize wireless technology, while controlling costs.

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As the largest municipally owned energy company in the nation, CPS Energy delivers both natural gas and electric service throughout its 1,566 square-mile service area in the San Antonio metro area. The city of San Antonio acquired CPS Energy in 1942. Today, proceeds from CPS Energy account for more than one-fifth of the city’s annual operating budget, and bills are among the lowest of the nation’s largest cities.

IT Takes a Look

It makes sense that in the midst of daily service and strategic, long-term planning, the IT division is ensuring that its employees are armed with the best wireless equipment and a comprehensive network. The IT division realized it was time to examine both in mid-2006. CPS Energy’s aging analog SmartNet and DataTac voice and data two-way radio systems had reached their end-of-life and could no longer keep up with the utility company’s growing demand for dispatch, data access and wireless communications. In addition, it was no longer economically feasible, in terms of manpower and operations costs, for the IT organization to separately manage multiple networks to access mobile data. Maintaining isolated pools of data also prevented the company from achieving end-to-end visibility and control over its business processes.

CPS Energy realized that rather than simply replace the communications system, it was time to create an overall mobility strategy for the company. The first step was to create a mobility needs document with San Antonio-based consulting firm Karta Technologies Inc.(now a subsidiary of NCI Information Systems Inc.) that defined the mobility goals for CPS Energy. The resulting report identified the need to upgrade the voice and data systems, mobilize work order management processes, provide remote access to digital images, drawings, data sheets, geographic information systems (GIS) maps, etc., automate time-sheet management, enhance metrics to drive business results, and provide fleet management/asset tracking. The list is extensive, but it helps illustrate how easy it would be for the project team to start running too soon. The team may think it has the problems and goals identified, but it is only by conducting a full assessment that all the areas that could, and should, be integrated into a new network are uncovered.

In this instance, three overarching goals quickly rose to the top:

1. Support evolving business unit mobility needs in a forward-looking manner.
2. Reduce the risk of selecting mobile solutions that quickly become obsolete.
3. Reduce the risk of continuing to manage multiple disparate mobile solutions.

CPS Energy then enlisted Motorola, which performed a “maturity assessment,” a deep dive into CPS Energy’s current communications infrastructure environment; and an IP network assessment to ensure both components were ready to support full mobility. Together, the results of the maturity assessment and IP network assessment helped analyze and document vital information that would identify gaps that had to be closed in order to meet the mobility goals. The results of the assessment gave CPS Energy and Motorola the building blocks to create a mobility architecture and mobility “roadmap.”

Developing a unified mobility strategy brings the management of multiple RF technologies into a single interface, optimizes the performance of business applications in the mobile environment and allows for seamless bridging of data between wired and wireless networks. With this strategic, next-generation approach, CPS Energy ensured that advanced mobile applications can be rolled out across scalable, multi-technology networks. The strategy enables IT to leverage new technologies that deliver more cost-effective and efficient network connectivity to a larger mobile workforce.

What the Strategy Entails

The strategy focuses on 1,500 mobile workers and 1,500 vehicles in the field. CPS Energy is arming its team with additional coverage and throughput necessary so the mobile worker can perform more work in the field and complete it more accurately. For example, the strategy supports these in-the-field activities:

  • work order creation,
  • GIS map access,
  • time sheet entry and management, and
  • fleet and asset management.

The services that enable fleet and asset management is part of a bigger tracking component that includes real-time connectivity combined with GPS-enabled location tracking, remote vehicle diagnostics and dispatching via the most efficient route. Location information is passed to back-office systems such as outage management and dispatching. The vehicle diagnostic information would be passed back to preventative maintenance system (e.g., scheduling maintenance work orders for vehicles having intermittent service problems). Equally important in the tracking system is dispatchers knowing the current or last known location of all field crews in the event of disaster.

Not only is CPS Energy able to better track the field crews with better mobile connectivity, it is creating efficiency gains via improved data accuracy and reduced data reentry (due to less paperwork), more accurate data (such as map data) and reduced drive time. CPS Energy melds this in-the-field support with wireless LAN implementation in its office buildings for in-office mobile worker movement. This single point of management optimizes wired and wireless voice, video and data traffic.

CPS Energy is able to integrate its new mobility strategy without a complete equipment overhaul, which is conserving cost, as well as easing the employee learning curve. The utility has a work management information system (WMIS) from LogicaCMG that is tightly integrated with its SAP system and mobile data dispatching system from Ventyx. The Ventyx system currently uses the DataTAC system to provide communications to ruggedized computers mounted in approximately 400 service trucks. This system, purchased in 1991, is being migrated to the IP-based Motorola Harmony integrated voice and data technology.

For mission critical voice and data communications to its field forces, CPS Energy concluded that Harmony will provide faster data speeds and more bandwidth than is possible with the current system. It will provide complete coverage of CPS Energy’s service territory, which has expanded well beyond the reach of the original analog system.

The current ruggedized laptops mounted in the fleet vehicles are compatible with the new communications network. The vehicle-based, portable, GPS-enabled Harmony radios are directly connected to the laptops—again allowing CPS Energy to more easily convert the equipment/systems using the existing radios’ connections.

A Peek at the Advantages

The new system cuts down on employee training time, provides digital IP-based data that is easier to transfer, and vehicle work stations that are easier to maintain. There are many advantages to CPS Energy’s new mobility program. A comprehensive planning phase allowed the utility to incorporate these varied goals. The conceptual architecture and mobility roadmap provided recommended actions and a schedule for implementing the mobility architecture in manageable phases, rather than entailing a significant upfront capital investment right out of the gate. The phased approach also helped minimize complexity and risk by breaking implementation into several stages, each building upon the preceding foundational steps.

The new system provides remote access to digital images, drawings, data sheets, GIS maps and more.
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IP-based mobility is built upon an array of wireless technologies that, if not carefully planned, can lead to islands of information and management systems within the organization and pose significant challenges for the IT team. Lack of careful planning also can increase risk by introducing change to security, content management and device management. All these elements can impact the ability to move successfully into an application-driven network environment.

Since the strategy is in the midst of implementation, it is too early to see measurable infrastructure maintenance cost savings. However, CPS Energy is anticipating several gains on the cost side as well as operational and situational benefits:

  • Replacing obsolete two-way voice and low-bandwidth mobile data infrastructure with the Harmony system will largely reduce risk exposure to catastrophic system failure of mission- and business-critical, two-way voice and data communications. This will eliminate the issues associated with scarcity of replacement parts, and dwindling population of maintenance personnel with the skill sets needed to support obsolete technologies that increase the likelihood of sustained outages and longer “time to recovery.”
  • The new system supports end-to-end IP services and provides pull-through enablement of innovative and leading edge work force management applications, seamless integration with other IP-enabled air interfaces (such as 802.11x WLAN, commercial, Wi-MAX and 3G wireless broadband) and opportunities to train and enhance CPS Energy in-house support personnel on relevant leading edge technologies vs. sustaining out-dated skill sets. This provides a competitive advantage in terms of technology as a process improvement accelerator, customer satisfaction enhancer, etc.; and as an attractor of skilled technologists—making CPS Energy a desirable employer. The carry-through is savings in training fewer new hires, and higher than average return on investment (ROI) on training investments in current staff due to retention rates.

With the right equipment and the right information to help make critical decisions, and a plan that will cost-effectively move it toward achieving its vision, CPS Energy is implementing a unified enterprise mobility strategy for secure anytime, anywhere access to mission-critical data.

CPS Energy is focused on becoming No. 1 in customer satisfaction and a great place to work. Mobile technologies play a key role in obtaining these goals. One of the ways the utility monitors its progress is to define, measure and monitor performance metrics. Mobile technologies provide a conduit into business processes allowing CPS Energy to quickly react to demands without burdening its field forces with non-core data gathering activities.

This new, converged approach to mobility will reduce infrastructure costs while improving overall network and application performance. This single point of management optimizes wired and wireless voice, video and data traffic, further lowering the total cost of ownership. By implementing a unified enterprise mobility strategy, CPS Energy is creating an environment that allows for secure anytime, anywhere access to mission-critical data. ❮❮

Scarlett is an 18-year industry veteran who currently serves as CPS Energy’s first chief architect responsible for long-range IT systems planning and governance.

Roark, a director in Motorola’s Global Services organization, has more than 30 years experience in architecting solutions for enterprise, government and service provider verticals.

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