Going wireless: putting the pieces together for true field service mobility

Michael Bauer

Cerulean Technology

In the world of deregulation, improving employee productivity is a top priority for electric utilities. Consequently, many are employing IT to empower frontline service people to effectively support the company`s customers.

While this is straightforward for service workers like bank tellers, store customer service clerks and auto repair technicians, it becomes a challenge for field employees in the power industry when their office is a car, van or truck.

To empower a mobile workforce, utilities need to provide them with the same information employees working at headquarters have. For effective service, field employees need real-time access to mission-critical data, such as customer history, trouble tickets, product updates and dispatch schedules. The combination of low-cost, powerful laptops and handheld computers coupled with improved private and public wireless data infrastructures, has made wireless data access cost-effective. Wireless data solutions are being implemented today with measurable results-saving organizations 30-90 minutes a day per field technician.

While empowering a mobile workforce with wireless technology can yield tremendous savings, there are rules and requirements that govern the success of the overall solution. It is not as simple as giving every field worker a laptop and a cellular phone. Achieving the objectives of improved customer satisfaction, customer retention, and employee productivity requires solutions that recognize the inherent limitations of the wireless environment and compensate for them in the solution design.

Successful deployment of a wireless data solution can not be accomplished without close attention to two basic principles:

1. Bandwidth in the wireless world is a rare commodity

In the corporate network world, network speeds of 10/100/1000 Mbps are common for a local area networked (LAN) environment. Even remote, dial-in access is now readily available at 56 Kbps and above. Data transactions-size and speed of delivery-are not hindered because the available bandwidth, or capacity, is quite large.

The wireless environment is much different. There is a very large “bandwidth divide” between the wired and wireless worlds. Best case bandwidth in the wireless data world currently tops out at 19.2 Kbps with Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD). Due to this “bandwidth divide,” applications cannot simply be ported to the wireless world.

2. Send only needed data

Rule no. 2 of wireless transmission is simple and straightforward: send only the needed data. For instance, utility field technicians typically require two sets of data. First, they need updated service call schedules, problem reports, and the ability to drill-down into customer history and service records. They also need to update status, customer information, and log what was fixed or replaced. This is a perfect use for real-time wireless communication: field workers have access to organizations` data from back and front office systems, but only the requested and most critical data gets sent to the mobile user.

The second set of data utility field technicians require is detailed maps, site plans, etc. This information is often megabytes in size and for the most part is fairly static. This type of data can be easily stored on a CD-ROM loaded in a laptop in the technician`s truck. Bringing such a large file over a wireless link would take far too long even at 19.2 Kbps, thus making a wireless data solution an ineffective tool. Andrew Seybold summed it up best in a recent white paper called “Wireless Data Opportunities” where he emphasized that for the mobile worker, access to text-based information is better than no access at all.

Radio infrastructure

Once the utility has employed the “cardinal rules” to outline the data exchange and work flows needed by the field service organization, the next choice is to decide what wireless infrastructure is best. Not every choice is available in all geographical areas, but the following is a set of guidelines to point you in the right direction. The table summarizes key points regarding the various radio infrastructures that can be deployed.

Private radio-Most field and customer service organizations operate voice dispatch on simplex or duplex channels licensed by the FCC. Private radio systems normally support data transmission at 4800 or 9600 bps, and can be constructed with a modest investment. Since the radio system is owned by the user organization, once hardware is acquired and installed, there is no fee for operation. A private radio solution could be ideal for a bi-directional, real-time information system if frequencies are available in the area, there is adequate coverage from a single site, and the fleet size is less than 50 users.

If multiple tower sites are required to cover a large area or serve hundreds of vehicles, the private radio network required will be more complex, and therefore more expensive to build and maintain. Finally with private radio systems the end-user organization or a contractor must maintain and upgrade the private radio system.

Public network-Public network options include Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), Personal Communications Systems (PCS), BellSouth Wireless Data (Mobitex), ARDIS, and others. Each is operated by public or private companies and most offer extensive nationwide coverage from several hundred transmitter sites located in the most populated areas-with some networks boasting speeds up to 19.2 Kbps. Charges are based on usage (number of characters or packets sent), or on a fixed monthly fee.

Public networks may be the only choice in areas where there are no private radio frequencies available. Large fleets are easily accommodated on public networks, as each site typically supports multiple channels, and sites are linked into a single network.

Going wireless

Electric, light and power organizations need a cost-effective, highly reliable and efficient wireless mobile communications solution that can provide field workers with all the information they need, without breaking the bank.

Today`s technology has enabled the development of cost-competitive plug-and-play wireless mobile communications software packages, complete with flexible application programming interfaces, encryption functions, and a Web browser-based user interface. These standards-based software packages can easily integrate with existing networks, multiple applications and information tools, including hand-held and vehicle-based laptop computers and take as little as one week to deploy, slashing installation costs.

Knowing the rules and issues for deploying a wireless data solution is the first step in making the right decision for improving field service workforce`s productivity.

Understanding the technology options available for wireless data communications is equally important. This knowledge, combined with an organization`s requirements for the information needed in the field, will allow the utility to deploy a wireless data solution that provides immediate results, improving productivity, operations and customer satisfaction.

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