Keys to boosting field service crew productivity

We’ve all seen the recent reports: Adopt a mobile strategy into your organization or be left behind. The proliferation of mobile devices, the increase in wireless technologies, workers using their own devices on the job; it all points to the need for implementing an efficient mobile deployment.

In a utility, there is a delicate balance of using new technologies to increase operational efficiency, but at the same time improve customer service and the bottom line. Expanding mobile initiatives has been a very effective way to achieve this end; enhanced installations can give field crews greater access to information, increase their job satisfaction and improve overall productivity.

However, as the number and scope of these mobile initiatives has grown over time, and more processes within the utility have become reliant on the connectivity provided by public wireless networks, it is becoming increasingly clear that these same networks represent a gaping blind spot within their mobile deployment.

Everyone knows that you can’t manage what you can’t see. For networking professionals, this has traditionally meant tapping into a large portfolio of products and services that provide visibility into how their internal wired networks and applications are performing. But cellular (or mobile broadband) networks are an exception.

While field utility workers rely on public cellular connections every day to access mission-critical applications, how these networks are performing is a huge blind spot for IT departments. The result is manual troubleshooting of dropped and poor connections, field service crews who often return to pen and paper out of frustration with technology, poorly served customers and business processes that don’t work as intended, putting an organization’s large investment in mobility at risk.

While some utilities might have a general understanding where their weaknesses lie, a new study by Rysavy Research and NetMotion Wireless of more than 400 networking professionals from utility and other field-centric industries, pinpoints exactly where mobile deployments are commonly coming up short.

The survey defined cellular data deployments as one where mobile employees are accessing mission critical business applications – such as Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD), work order or CRM applications – through cellular data networks in the field. Questions were limited to the usage of cellular data only (not voice) by employees on company-owned devices such as laptops, tablets or handhelds. Here’s what the respondents had to say:

Improving connection reliability was the primary challenge, cited three times more often than other requirements, including security and cost control. And, as we all know, in today’s utility environment, without a reliable, high performing connection, field workers can’t do their job.

Respondents also cited a lack of tools to help troubleshoot connectivity problems, such as slow data transfers. In fact, more than half of the respondents reported they have no tools for troubleshooting cellular connections at all. Some respondents said they rely mostly on talking with the end user (“How many bars do you see now?”) or calling their carrier’s help desk. In short, they rely on anecdotal information, and lack any kind of analytical data or tools that will lead to improvements in connection quality.

A large number of respondents said they find the process of selecting a cellular carrier to be challenging, largely because they weren’t sure which carriers delivered the best coverage for their area. The generic coverage maps provided by operators are not enough to make a decision; they don’t reflect a utility’s unique mobile deployment profile, nor are they detailed enough. And conducting periodic drive testing is expensive, time consuming, and only captures a snapshot in time.

Forty percent of respondents admitted it was difficult to track mobile inventory. This group complained about the time that manual methods, like an Excel spreadsheet, take and the lack of automated inventory tools. One-third report the problem is a lack of visibility into either the use of the modem, or the identity of the modem’s user.

Nearly one-half admitted they had no systematic method for gathering data on their cellular deployments. So when asked about their ability to measure certain aspects of cellular data use, including 2G/3G/4G usage, disconnection rates, application use and coverage quality, it wasn’t surprising that very few indicated they could measure any one of them. In fact, nearly one-half said they could not measure a single factor.

These findings confirm that utility organizations need the ability to gather real-world performance information. This is the only way they will be able to systematically measure, troubleshoot and optimize connectivity in the field, and ensure they are getting the most out of their mobile investments.

Some vendors have identified this gap and are bringing to market tools that organizations can use to better monitor and optimize their mobile deployments. With these solutions, utilities will be able to reduce IT support demands and extend technology and service contract investments, all while increasing employee productivity. To get started, organizations need to ensure their mobility management strategies include the following capabilities:

“-          Detailed visibility into network signal quality and the type of technology that is being delivered to field users;

“-          Reports that highlight adapters that are performing poorly;

“-          A granular view into what applications and processes are consuming bandwidth; and

“-          Tools that enable managers to take action centrally, without touching the mobile device, to fix connectivity issues . 

These capabilities provide the foundation from which utilities can understand definitively how well their mobile deployment is working, and ensure their field crews are always getting the best connectivity possible.

The Rysavy Research “Trends in Enterprise Cellular Network Data Usage” report is available at http://www.netmotionwireless.com/rysavy-report

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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