by James Mustarde, Twisted Pair Solutions.
Regulatory mandates, volatile energy costs, surging power demands and growing global environmental concerns are driving the need for a radically different power-generation landscape.
Consumerism has vaulted utilities into a challenge in which traditional operation methods have been replaced by a complicated set of options. The smart grid will bring anticipated rate hikes in years ahead because of increasing demand, replacing aging infrastructure and possibly legislating to limit carbon emissions. All this is while utilities seek to improve the efficiency and controls of their businesses. They are being asked to balance performance and operational objectives with regulatory mandates and develop new approaches to asset management and investment decision-making.
Strategies to manage the growing complexity of business-critical environments are evolving quickly to stay in front of rising energy costs and growing sustainability mandates. In the competitive global economy, standalone asset performance and monitoring are not enough to make a strategic business impact. Leading global utilities have access to real-time asset and operational performance information tightly integrated into real-time communication systems. This business process unification provides employees with the ability to communicate and collaborate in real time with individuals and teams no matter where they are located. It enables better decision-making and leads to increased business performance and lower costs.
Real-time Information, Communication Converge
Unified communications has become critical in helping utilities meet 21st-century market demands and mandates while providing a key strategic differentiator in this competitive global market. Industrial unified communications (IUC) can enhance utilities’ capacity to address these industry changes.
IUC is the convergence of real-time operational information and communications in a situational context. It empowers employees to make better, more informed decisions in real time. It integrates the ability to know with the ability to act for end-to-end issue resolution. IUC is enabled by the integration of unified communications platforms such as Twisted Pair’s WAVE and data and events-management infrastructures such as OSIsoft’s PI System.
By providing real-time, process-critical information integrated with real-time, boundary-free communications, IUC lets customers see significant and measurable efficiency and effectiveness gains. IUC-enabled collaboration leads to process improvements, risk mitigation, enhanced regulatory compliance and identification of competitive business and market opportunities.
IUC brings together data and voice, providing utilities with several cost and efficiency savings. Utilities can receive quicker issue notifications, which improve response and repair time. This can reduce everyday business costs and potential costs if a situation worsens. An overheated transformer, for example, can be fixed easily if it’s caught quickly, but it must be replaced if not.
In addition, IUC systems can improve communication and coordination by connecting utility workers whether in the office or field and whether on radios or personal computers. This also reduces communication infrastructure costs and fees and allows utilities to take advantage of the feature-rich, latest communication devices such as smart phones and tablets. Finally, IUC facilitates better communication with utility users during a power outage or restoration. This improves customer service and retention and reduces the time and money spent on these activities.
For example, with IUC a manager can receive on his or her desktop an alert that a transformer is about to blow. The manager instantly can transfer that information to a dispatcher, who immediately can see which field-worker is closest to that transformer and push-to-talk (PTT) with the field-worker on a smart phone and tell where he or she is assigned to fix it. This all happens in minutes, no matter where personnel are or what devices they use. This scenario can be played out with any number of people on any number of devices, including radios, landline phones, tablets and more, moving the problem to solution more quickly and saving utilities time and money.
Software Leverages New Networks, Devices
IUC comes when new networks and devices are revolutionizing enterprise communications. Historically, utilities had limited communication choices. Radios offer the immediacy and reliability of PTT communication, but they are built on private networks, limit the communication range and require continual upgrades and purchases of expensive, bulky, single-purpose devices. Similarly, carrier-based solutions offer a radio over a cellular network. The devices are less expensive and more practical, but users are still locked into a specific device and service provider with limited functionality and coverage area.
Now, utilities can choose devices to create a rich, multifunction environment that incorporates voice, video and presence using radios and other mobile devices. Even radios have advanced and allow for greater spectrum efficiency and communication features. For example, Nexedge digital radio brand from Kenwood uses the NXDN Common Air Interface, which was developed for the business and industry market as a cost-effective communication method that achieves spectrum efficiency through digitization while maintaining the basic architecture of analog FM radio. In addition, Motorola’s Mototrbo has a rich feature set that includes alarms, text messaging and GPS on a user-friendly interface.
The real revolution, however, is the product of software-based communications. Software can achieve real-time, PTT communication among teams of mobile workers and allows any smart phone or tablet to connect over any data network, creating a geographically unrestricted network. These software solutions connect with analog or digital radios such as those mentioned and radio networks as well. Utilities can leverage their existing communication infrastructure and take advantage of sleek devices to experience seamless, two-way communication between workers and teams.
Innovative software applications running over broadband Internet Protocol (IP) networks coupled with existing technologies or sleek, new portable devices are generating smarter, more cost-effective solutions to utility problems while preparing them for the rapid industry changes underway. This software can be deployed on smart phones, tablets and personal computers quickly and cost-effectively to achieve more advanced, fully interoperable communications that help realize cost and efficiency improvements. Software offers flexible, mobile, lightweight solutions and can track the rich data that is the backbone of utilities. Software also can integrate with video and voice applications, making jobs easier and performance more accurate and timely.
Software Extends Communications, Expands Resources
Software solutions connect and extend critical voice, video and data communications by removing device, system and platform barriers. Such solutions require no new hardware and, unlike proprietary systems, have no hardware preference. Software supports limitless clients including tablets, smart phones, two-way radios, desktop IP phones and personal computers.
Because software allows utilities to use existing devices and infrastructures, including radio systems, they can reduce ongoing operating and maintenance costs. In addition, they may repurpose existing equipment and connect previously incompatible equipment such as traditional trunked radios to their communications networks for an easy solution to spectrum squeeze.
Software solutions also offer utilities more cost-effective dispatch control and operations. For example, utilities can reduce the number of hardware consoles or replace them via a client application installed on a personal computer. This would help the utility move from expensive, proprietary networks and instead use 3G, 4G, LTE and Wi-Fi networks or a combination of the networks. A utility could dispatch to thousands of people from a single personal computer, consolidating systems into one console and dramatically improving work flow and customer service.
Software allows a utility’s communications network to span facilities spread over a wide geographic area because it easily manages any complex web of public and private networks, including mobile field-workers. For example, using a simple Web browser application, a customer service manager using a personal computer and fielding calls from consumers who have lost power during a storm could talk directly to a radio-equipped field-worker restoring power. The same customer service manager might then use a browser application to participate in PTT communications with a group of field-workers using smart phones. Software brings together diverse communications technologies of any kind into a single, standardized, interoperable communications network.
Utilities are poised for major change, but they can prepare by guiding the way their workers collaborate. The key is software that optimizes existing assets and smart technologies. This will redefine work flows and improve business operations. Unifying disparate communications systems and devices will improve operations and prepare utilities for more intelligent meter and consumption monitoring, better management of communications across decentralized architectures and a more transparent dialogue with customers, which is especially important as utilities try to meet new market demands and mandates.
James Mustarde is marketing director for Twisted Pair Solutions. He speaks and writes on the benefits of software-based unified communications for mobile work forces. Reach him at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.More PowerGrid International Issue Articles
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