Field Data Communications: Thin-pipe Processes in a Fat-pipe World

By Mark Hatfield, Enspiria Solutions Inc.

With the continued expansion of commercial high-speed data networks (3G cellular, WiFi, WiMax, etc.), utilities are tempted by the pleasing marketing melodies of this fat-pipe (high-bandwidth) world, but it is unclear whether the fat-pipe world can bring measurable business value. Gas and electric utility field business processes, and the supporting information requirements, have evolved in a “thin-pipe” communications world. Off-cycle meter work, outage management and construction work are structured so that field crews have the information they need to execute their work in the truck or are able to get it via voice and limited data communications (thin-pipe communications). The key question is whether there are latent information needs in these business processes that would truly benefit from fat-pipe, high-speed data networks.

Traditional Thin-pipe Processes

Gas and electric utility business processes today exist in a thin-pipe communications world of paper, voice communications and limited data communications (19.2 kilobits per second or less). The information that field techs need to execute their work must either be in the truck or easily obtained over the radio. Work orders and work packages are disseminated at the start of a shift either in paper or via limited data communications. Paper maps, fiche or service cards are kept in the trucks to provide additional information when needed, and they are periodically refreshed. Blank forms, door hangers, receipts, tags, etc. are kept in the trucks and manually filled in when needed. This is the state of the business processes at many utilities today.

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This doesn’t mean there is no technology used in the trucks. Utilities have used mobile workforce management systems to dispatch and disseminate work orders for years. Mobile GIS is rapidly gaining momentum and replacing paper maps, fiche and service cards. Using GPS to track the location of trucks is also becoming more common. Some utilities are installing printers in trucks to print receipts. As utilities have implemented these technologies, they have been integrated, quite successfully, into the existing thin-pipe processes.


Mobile GIS is rapidly gaining momentum and replacing paper maps, fiche and service cards.
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The key aspect of the thin-pipe world for utilities is that once the field techs have their work for the normal day-to-day operations, they don’t need access to additional information to complete that work. They may need more current information (order cancellations, appointment changes, etc.) to do their work effectively. But once they have their work, they are very self-sufficient.

Why Thin-pipe Today?

As we are bombarded with fat-pipe communication advertisements including 3G cellular, WiFi, WiMax, and others, there is a perceived underlying frustration that utilities are not embracing this technology more rapidly. So the question is: Why aren’t utilities embracing fat-pipe communications? First, many utilities have a great diversity of communication environments (urban, suburban, and rural) across their service territories. Fat-pipe communication rollout strategies focus on urban and suburban areas. Even in these areas, the “Can you hear me now?” coverage is not as reliable as the vendors lead us to believe. Utility business processes must work across their service territories and thin-pipe processes do achieve this.

Second, the traditional thin-pipe processes work, and they have worked for years. Adding technology to these processes and moving to limited data communications is an evolutionary response to improvements in communications, and mobile technology.

Finally, the goal of current thin-pipe business processes and technology deployments is to maximize field crew productivity and minimize potential distractions. Many utilities fear introduction of fat-pipe communications will reduce the productivity of field crews rather than enhance it. The question remains as to whether fat-pipe communications will provide substantial business benefit.

Is There a Business Benefit?

For this article, fat-pipe communications are defined as those commercial 3G cellular, WiFi and WiMax technologies that give data speeds in excess of 300 kilobits per second. At these speeds, the field has access to networks that begin to match the data speeds we are used to in the office and at home.

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There are a variety of perspectives you can take to analyze the question of whether or not there is a business benefit to fat-pipe communications for gas and electric utilities. One perspective would be to ask if there is demand for information in the field that thin pipes can’t meet. On the typical blue sky day with work going as planned, it is arguably difficult to identify information that the field doesn’t have in the thin-pipe world that would benefit them. The thin-pipe processes were designed specifically for this scenario. The field does need updates to the work plan as it proceeds (cancelled orders, appointment changes, etc.), but the thin-pipe worlds accomplish this already. Does the field really need access to e-mail, company intranet or streaming video on the blue sky days? Does management want these distractions in the trucks when the goal is to complete as many work orders as possible on any given day? Probably not, so the true benefits of fat-pipe communications to utilities on blue sky days is difficult to identify.

On the other hand, when blue skies turn gray and things begin to go wrong, there may be demands for information in the field that thin pipes can’t meet? When things have gone wrong (electric outages, gas leaks, crew or materials delays that impact a construction project), the information needs of both the field and the office increase. In the thin-pipe world, this communication is limited to voice communications or limited text messaging in mobile workforce management systems. In the fat-pipe world, field crews have the ability to query systems to determine locations of other crews, inventory status, etc. In the fat-pipe world, field crews can send real-time damage assessment back to the office with digital pictures so dispatchers can plan and coordinate the best course of action. These communications enable multiple crews to communicate simultaneously rather than single-threaded voice conversations.

It is much easier to see the potential benefits to fat-pipe communications when things go wrong. Business processes and applications will need to be changed to support this increased data flow and processes will still need to support those portions of the service territory where fat-pipe communications are not available.

The back door benefit to fat-pipe communications may be helping utilities manage their communication network costs. As utilities face relicensing and narrowbanding issues with their private radio networks and upgrade costs, the economic fundamentals of the utilities’ thin-pipe networks may begin to change. Utilities may need to consider hybrid networks where commercial fat-pipe networks are used in the urban and suburban portions of their territories, and they focus private radio network dollars on their rural territories. Once the fat-pipe networks are in place, the incentives of adding applications and modifying business processes to use the available throughput begins to change.

Transitioning to the Fat-pipe World

As utilities consider taking advantage of fat-pipe communications, both technology and business processes will need to change. On the technology front, utilities will need to put the wireless middleware infrastructures, firewalls and security environments in place to safely and securely expose back office applications and databases to the mobile environment. IT organizations will need to carefully consider whether field crews can use simple browser technology to access this information or if robust store and forward, off-line synch applications will be required.

An additional consideration is that mobile devices will need to have robust security applications (passwords, patching, virus protection, etc.) consistent with office computers. In the thin-pipe world, many mobile devices were excluded from security applications considered mandatory for office computers because they communicated with point solutions and had little or no ability to access sensitive data or spread viruses. In the fat-pipe world with expanded data access, utilities may no longer have this luxury.

On the business process side, the relationship between the dispatcher and field crew may change significantly in the fat-pipe world. When things go wrong in the field, the dispatcher becomes a vital clearinghouse for information to and from the field. As the field has access to more information, the potential decision-making ability of the field increases. Utilities need to determine how changes to traditional responsibility and authority roles of the dispatcher and field level will be implemented through the organization. If fat-pipe communications are used to increase data from the field (digital photos, digital video, damage reports, etc.), business processes will need to be modified to effectively use this additional information. Business processes must also work if fat-pipe communications are not available in all portions of the service territory or temporarily unavailable due to emergency conditions.

Summary

Gas and electric utilities operate very well in the traditional, thin-pipe communication world. For the normal, blue sky days, it is questionable whether fat-pipe communications provide any substantial business benefits to the utilities. The traditional thin-pipe business processes are structured so the crews have the information they need to execute their work and they are mostly self-sufficient. For the abnormal events (electric outages, gas leaks, crew or materials delays that impact a construction project), when the information needs of the field and office increase, it is easier to identify the business benefits of commercial fat-pipe communications. Business processes and applications will need to be changed to support this increased data flow and processes will still need to support those portions of the service territory where fat-pipe communications are not available.

Mark Hatfield is a principal consultant with Enspiria Solutions, Inc. Mark specializes in field automation, mobile workforce management, and geospatial systems for utility operation. He holds a B.S. in Geography (US Air Force Academy) and MA in Geography (University of Illinois). Mark provides automation process and technology expertise to utilities across North America.

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