Mobile Computing Moves Beyond Dispatching and Scheduling

By Teresa Hansen, Managing Editor

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Mobile computing is allowing utilities to close the information loop between internal and field operations, giving them a competitive advantage.

Mobile computing is going to be bigger than client server and Web-based computing in terms of return on investment for the enterprise. This bold statement was made at MobileVillage’s recent Utility Industry Mobile Computing Forum 2000 by Marc Lurie, CEO and co-founder of @hand Corp., a company founded to simplify and accelerate the development, deployment and management of handheld applications. Lurie went on to explain that pure economics is the basis for his statement. “Trillions of dollars have been spent on information technology systems that provide information only to the desktop,” he said. Companies are going to start moving that information out to the mobile worker, which, according to Lurie, represents a much larger opportunity than previous desktop user space. “We are on the cusp of the mobile computing paradigm,” he said.

Utilities and energy service providers (ESPs) are primed for this paradigm. Most are beginning to realize that there is more to mobile computing than just dispatching and scheduling work crews. As utilities and ESPs focus more and more on customer service, field workers will become company ambassadors. Who better to improve a utility’s reputation and customer service than the individual who meets customers face-to-face on a daily basis? If that mobile worker is armed with the right information, he or she has the opportunity to do more than just “fix” a problem or provide a requested service. The field worker has the opportunity to provide and sell additional services on the spot, thus increasing revenue. Or, if nothing else, that individual can collect and enter valuable customer information that the marketing department can use to improve service or create value-added service offerings.

Competition is Driving Change

“Leading-edge utilities are finding that closing the information loop between internal and field operations is a key competitive advantage in terms of increased profitability and providing optimum customer service,” said Ed Sapiega, eMobile Data’s marketing vice president. “Workforce management used to be about technology, functionality and field efficiency,” he said. “Now it is about information, customer service and revenue. It used to be about getting the job done more efficiently and doing more of the same. Now it is about how to sell the customers more and retain them.”

Sapiega went on to say that work force management systems, ordinarily seen as an expense to support cost centers, are now becoming profit centers. They are now supporting a strategic business line, he said.

Customers are Driving Change

Customer expectations are changing, and even utilities that have not yet entered the competitive arena may find it necessary to make desktop information available to field workers. The information age has increased everyone’s access to information and raised expectations. When a field technician visits a customer’s home or business, it is becoming more and more common for that customer to expect immediate answers to questions and/or immediate resolutions to problems. Most customers are not content to wait for a call back from a customer service representative or, worse yet, to notify someone in the office when a company representative is standing in their home or office.

In theory, the transformation of field service technicians into field customer service representatives makes sense and sounds easy. However, implementation is slow. According to Bob Samborski, the Geospatial Information Technology Association’s executive director, 50 percent of a utility’s work force is located in the field, but only about 15 percent of those workers currently use mobile computers. This low number is probably a reflection of the barriers that must be overcome before a mobile computing system can provide the tools necessary to empower field service technicians.

Accessing Information

One of the biggest barriers to turning field service technicians into customer service representatives is that it is often difficult to provide the field service technician with the necessary information. Simple directions to a customer’s premise, a daily schedule that is downloaded each morning, or geographic information about equipment location have certainly streamlined field operations and brought about extra efficiency, but this is not enough information for a field technician serving as a customer service representative. The field worker must have access to things like account information, billing information and usage habits to solve customers’ problems and sell them new services. Connecting mobile systems to the systems that contain this information-the back office systems- isn’t always easy. As with any integration project, the process can be long and tedious. However, to make the most of a work force management system, integration with back office systems is necessary.

Other Common Barriers

In addition to integration concerns, other factors must be considered when implementing a mobile system. At the Utility Industry Mobile Computing Forum 2000 another speaker, Brett Knox, new market development director for FieldCentrix, a field service solutions provider, spoke about mobile computing and wireless technologies. Knox stressed that no matter which wireless network is selected, a utility can count on field technicians frequently being out of coverage. To mitigate the effects of out-of-coverage events, it is important to develop field applications that can be used even when the communications link between the field device and the office server is disconnected.

It is important to implement an application that will ensure data is never lost when a field technician travels out of the network’s coverage area. According to Knox, one way to alleviate problems that could occur when out of coverage, is to make sure field technicians do not have to manually initiate sending or receiving information. He suggested using a “store-and-forward” architecture on the mobile data terminal (MDT), as well as the home office server. With this feature, the devices know when they are not connected to one another. They will continue to send data until it is received. Thus, when a device comes back into coverage, messages are waiting for it.

Another concern that Knox addressed is the importance of keeping transmitted data relatively small. Even though there have been many advances in MDT technology, it is not wise to overburden the equipment and the field technician with unnecessary information. In addition, Knox emphasized the importance of compressing transmissions and minimizing data to reduce costs and improve system performance.

Lurie also addressed some of the pitfalls associated with implementing a mobile computing system. He said it is important to remember that mobile users are not expert computer users, and to make matters worse, they are isolated in the field. These individuals do not have the in-house IT department’s immediate support if something goes wrong. In most cases they must take their MDT to the IT department, rather than have the IT department come to them, as is the typical case with desktop users. In addition, mobile users do not even have a co-worker’s help or support. If something goes wrong with their MDT in the field, they must fend for themselves. This lack of support makes it important to keep field applications simple and easy to use.

Ruggedized equipment typically used in the field is much different than equipment found on the desktop and can create additional problems. The equipment has limited disk space, limited resident memory and is usually battery powered. Mobile workers also often encounter problems with screen glare, small screen size and surroundings that are less than optimal. Data transmission can also be inhibited or interrupted when users are inside a building or moving in a vehicle. Therefore, it is necessary to consider how well a selected network performs in these situations.

Network Choices

Choosing network technology is one of the most important choices associated with developing and implementing a work management system. In his presentation at the Mobile Computing Forum, Knox also spoke about what works well in the field. He pointed out that there are several different wireless technologies available to support mobile computing. He stressed that utilities should research the different technologies and seriously consider specific requirements and service area when choosing a network provider.

Wireless LAN

Wireless local area network (LAN) technology is one mobile computing choice Knox addressed. This technology, in which data transmission is free and no licenses are required, is typically not a very good choice for field service applications because of its limited range. It is best suited for sending and receiving data wirelessly in a campus or building environment. However, since data transmission is free and data can be transmitted at speeds up to 11 Mbps, a wireless LAN should be considered for technicians that operate in a very limited area, Knox said. The technology can be used in plant settings, such as water treatment plants, buildings and campus environments.

Paging Networks

Pagers are the most common wireless devices used in field service today, Knox said. While this technology is useful for short messages, it is limiting. In cases where one-way pagers are utilized, all messages are sent to the field technician immediately and there is usually no confirmation of delivery. Therefore, it is impossible for the field technician to communicate back to the central office. As the name indicates, messages can only travel one way-from the central office to the field technician.

Another pager option is the 1.5-way pager. With this technology, the sender does receive verification that the message was received. However, there is still no way for the field technician to communicate with the central office, Knox said.

The most versatile pager is the two-way pager, which allows messages to be sent and received on both ends. However, message length is still limited, usually to 160 to 240 characters.

According to Knox, pagers provide the highest likelihood of communicating with field technicians in emergency situations, but they will not allow a field technician to perform many of the tasks that customers are expecting from field service technicians.

Public Wireless Networks

Another technology commonly used in the field is the wireless wide-area network (WAN). This technology can be broken down into three specific networks: packet data networks, cellular data networks and satellite data networks.

Packet Data Networks

Packet data networks are probably the most commonly used among utilities and, according to Knox, provide the best solution for mobile computing over a public wireless network. These networks allow data to flow easily between the home office and the mobile worker, he said.

Currently, four companies offer packet data network services. They are BellSouth Wireless Data, Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), Motient and Metricom-Ricochet. All four charge a flat monthly fee plus an additional amount based on the amount of data transmitted. Like with a pager, as long as users are in the coverage area, they are always connected to the network-it is not necessary to connect like with a cell phone. In addition, connect time is free.

As the name implies, packet data network technology transmits data in small packets, usually from 128 to 256 bytes. The data is encrypted to help ensure security.

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Although the technology is basically the same, there are some distinctive differences between the four companies that offer packet data network services (Figure 1). BellSouth Wireless Data, which was called RAM Mobile Data until 1998 when BellSouth purchased it, provides coverage to 93 percent of the U.S. population. Mobitex is its wireless protocol, and although it is widely used in field service applications, according to Knox, it is not a good choice if Web access is desired-it is too slow.

CDPD on the other hand does support Internet access at up to 19.2 kbps. However, it lacks the coverage of BellSouth, with only about 50 percent of the United States currently in its service territory. It provides coverage similar to cell phone coverage. CDPD is being offered by several different vendors, including GTE, Bell Atlantic, AmeriTech and AT&T, which is its most aggressive marketer. Although the number of users is growing, Knox said a number of experts believe the multiple vendors could cause compatibility issues. Many also believe the technology will be outdated in three to five years, he said.

Motient, which was commercialized by IBM and Motorola in 1980 for use by their own field service crews, uses the wireless protocol ARDIS. The technology was purchased by American Mobile Satellite in 1998, and the name was changed to Motient in 2000. Like BellSouth, Motient covers more than 90 percent of the U.S. population and is widely used in field service applications. Also, similar to BellSouth, it is not a realistic technology for Web browsing. In addition, Motient supports wireless data only and offers no voice support.

The fourth network service provider in this category, Metricom-Ricochet, provides the fastest wireless access speed available today-128 kbps. However, it is primarily for stationary users. It cannot transmit data while moving, meaning it is not feasible for most field service applications. Additionally, Metricom-Ricochet only provides coverage in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Seattle.

Cellular Data Networks

Unlike packet data network providers, cellular data network providers bill their customers based on “connect” time, or minutes of use, which can be very expensive. Cellular data networks, on the other hand, support both voice and data and can be used to access the Internet at speeds of more than 9.6 kbps, with speeds expected to climb to 384 kbps by 2001 and 2002, according to Knox. To access data, the user must connect a cell phone to the computer. This connection causes the field technician a great deal of inconvenience because the connection requires cables. These cables have a tendency to get tangled and take up space in an already cramped area.

According to Knox, one of the biggest drawbacks to cellular data networks in the United States is that these numerous providers have failed to adopt one common protocol. Currently several different cellular providers are competing for customers, and each uses a different protocol. The lack of one common protocol makes it unlikely that Internet access speeds will increase. “To increase to very high speeds, the United States must adopt one or two protocols,” Knox said. “Otherwise, with the expense involved in installing repeater sites and associated equipment, few providers will make the investment necessary to increase speed and improve performance. This is why some people feel that CDPD will become obsolete.” Knox pointed out that GSM is the wireless standard that has been adopted in Europe, and it is growing in Asia and the United States. However, until one common protocol becomes standard, users must look at the best coverage for their particular area before deciding on a provider and protocol.

Knox did point out that cellular data networks can be a good alternative for field service technicians who do not need to be in constant contact with the base or office.

Satellite Data Networks

The least used and most expensive public wireless networks are the satellite data networks. These networks fall into four categories: geostationary earth orbit (GEO), medium earth orbit (MEO), low earth orbit (LEO), and global positioning system (GPS), which is most often used in vehicle and technician tracking. Satellite networks are typically only used for mobile computing in areas where other networks cannot be used-usually rural areas. Knox said he expects that these networks will continue to be expensive and will probably remain primarily for backup use.

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Knox stressed that it is unlikely one network will cover a utility’s entire service territory. Therefore, it is important for the home office server to support various networks (Figure 2). He also pointed out that each network requires a different modem, and the modems are not interchangeable. Therefore, once an MDT is set up for one particular network, the field technician cannot switch networks when traveling from one coverage area to another, without having multiple modems.

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