Ready or Not, Mobile Computing is a Competitive Advantage

Ready or Not, Mobile Computing is a Competitive Advantage

By Steven Wood, Associate Editor

Electric utilities are adapting to the new competitive marketplace by realizing two important factors: they have to provide more than electricity and they have to be responsive to their customers. The means to which they deliver electricity will remain relatively constant, but the way they respond to customers will change dramatically. As the utility industry is adapting to its new re-regulated environment, it is also finding new ways to deliver services to its customers. To be more competitive in a competitive world, utilities are finding that they have to do more than just send power down the lines. They realize that customers will demand faster response to requests, quicker outage response, and improved customer service.

Utilities are exploring several avenues to answer these needs. Many are looking towards the Internet as the answer. According to a study by the Yankee Group, 62 percent of incumbent energy companies consider the Internet to be very important or critical to their futures, but less than 20 percent currently provide customer or supplier specific information access or services. Most energy companies do not think of the Internet as a transaction-enabling or value-creating opportunity, but merely as a static repository of company and product information.

This indicates that utilities will be looking for alternatives to delivering customer benefits that will also provide corporate savings. Some utilities will try to combine the Internet with other customer satisfaction services, such as mobile computing.

In fact, more than 50 percent of U.S. utilities plan to implement mobile data systems (MDS) within the next two years, according to IT consulting firm META Group. “Utilities have to move at a quicker pace in implementing mobile computing to stay competitive,” said Mel Hinton, PSE&G information technology engineer. “We need these tools to be competitive, we have to work smarter and better.”

Trends in Mobile Computing

According to Rick Nicholson, META Group energies information strategies senior program director, there are several trends to watch. Proprietary offerings from niche suppliers will be moving towards open/standards-based offerings from large players; application/solution vendors who do it all will move to specialization in applications and services; mobile data terminal implementations will move to thick and thin client implementations; and multiple overlapping systems will move to a consolidated MDS gateway/server.

Nicholson also indicated that there will be a growth of public wireless data networks (instead of private networks) due to capacity constraints, coverage constraints and cost. Multipurpose networks are becoming more popular verses specialized networks, more efficient use of bandwidth and more use of Internet protocol.

Mobile computing can offer several different advantages to utilities during the deregulation rollout. Whether a utility uses it for order management, advanced meter reading or outage response, the tools can vary from handheld keypads to ruggedized computers. According to Hinton, mobile technology is now keeping up with the office computer technology industry. He indicated that ruggedized PCs use to be 18 to 24 months behind regular laptop computers in processing speed, but now they are only three to six months behind the office-based machines. Hinton also sees expanded capabilities when manufacturers add video capability as well as improved CD-ROM systems to mobile computing systems. With the improved speed and current applications, utilities that implement a mobile computing solution will improve customer satisfaction and will potentially see improvements in their asset management.

Utilities will see a decrease in paper work orders, faster response times to service calls and improved customer satisfaction as they automate their mobile work force. Service technicians at one utility receive their daily work assignments and real-time customer status reports through their mobile computers. They also update customer records in the company`s information database as the work is performed. Two-way messaging permits field service technicians to respond directly to service calls as they develop throughout the day.

Another twist in mobile computing is the way Schlumberger is using its mobile technology. Schlumberger has expanded its meter reading capabilities by offering a complete information service in California, according to Tim Eskew, Schlumberger director of alliances. With the Schlumberger system, if a meter does not report in, a work order is automatically issued through the Internet to the field crew. The crew will make the repair on the meter and when the job is completed, the work order is downloaded at the company. Laptop computers are being used by Schlumberger to implement its mobile technology solution. “This has proven to be a cost effective service for Schlumberger,” Eskew said. “It`s a trend in the business, a natural progression where the information is the core element of mobile technology.”

Applications

San Antonio`s City Public Service (CPS), decided to implement a mobile data communications system. When fully implemented, CPS collectors, overhead electric and gas technicians and metering personnel will use the system in 200 vehicles to improve customer service and reduce outage response time.

Interfacing with the CPS mainframe computer, the system consists of two high-memory computer servers, mobile laptop computers and radio equipment. Field personnel will receive electronic work orders and will access facility maps and customer account information. CPS has installed nine radio communication towers to transmit digitized information via radio to the designated vehicles.

Collectors, the first work group to use the system, will take portable hand-held computers to the customer`s door to monitor customer accounts for payment to avoid unnecessary service disconnection. When receiving payment at the customer`s residence, the collector will be able to post it immediately on the CPS mainframe computer.

When a customer calls CPS to report a gas or electric problem, the system will route an order electronically and in seconds it will be dispatched to the nearest vehicle in the vicinity of the service problem. The system also will page the technicians in the field or at home to alert them of an incoming order.

The system also interfaces with the CPS global positioning system (GPS), which permits the technician and the CPS gas and electric operations center to monitor the servicemen`s location. Once the job has been completed, technicians enter a message into their laptops. Through an interface with the automated telephone answering system, the customer then gets a call back when service has been restored. The system also has a call ahead feature to communicate with the customer before the service personnel arrive at the customer`s residence.

CPS worked with the software vendor Mobile Data Solutions Inc. to customize mobile work force management applications to fit the utility`s needs. Motorola was responsible for the radio communications link.

In another application, Boston Edison, in the face of deregulation, explored ways to improve its competitive advantages. Mobile computing emerged as a solution, but the field crews needed instant communication with the main office in order to improve scheduling, update customer requests and confirm emergency repairs.

Service calls provide the greatest opportunity to directly interact with customers and impact their attitudes toward the utility. The utility realized that the key to keeping customers was better service, and the key to better service was improved workforce productivity.

“As our industry is deregulated, consumers will have their choice of electricity suppliers,” said Gerald Mata, Boston Edison`s field service project manager. “In addition to price, the company`s reputation for reliability and high quality customer service will influence that choice. Employing technology to improve efficiency and reduce costs enhances our ability to retain current customers and gain new customers beyond our service territory.”

After looking at the options, Boston Edison selected an application software and middleware developed by Alliance Systems. It included a Tandem Computers NonStop fault-tolerant platform that supports Microsoft Windows-based clients.

Boston Edison`s handhelds solution was the Norand PEN*KEY 6600 mobile computer with an integrated radio, bar code scanner and an Ericsson built-in wireless modem. Once the hand-helds were chosen, Alliance`s RM System software connected the computers to Boston Edison`s distributed network, using both mobile client and Tandem host software designed to support communications over wireless links.

During Boston Edison`s pilot, Mata confirmed the mobile computers reduced paperwork while giving technicians the opportunity to decrease their travel time and increase productivity on service calls. The hand-helds also helped with overall company control, allowing access to GPS devices from Trimble Navigation. These devices enabled the host computer to instantly locate vehicles, dispatch them to a nearby location or have them recalled.

The barcode scanners also created a portable, timesaving solution for new meter installation. Instead of keying in the meter identification numbers, technicians scan them in, eliminating errors and extra steps.

The mobile computing system pilot test proved to Boston Edison that time really is money. During the four month pilot test, the system enabled Boston Edison technicians to substantially increase the number of completed work orders per shift by 50 to 100 percent.

Conclusion

Mobile computing can be a valuable asset to an electric utility gearing up for competition, providing field service technicians with immediate information at their fingertips will make them and the utility more efficient, cost effective and improve customer service and satisfaction. Technologies and applications vary greatly; depending on a utility`s particular needs and wants. To be able to track and respond to service calls, outages, and collection activities, and provide a response mechanism to the customer will enhance the value of the services a utility can provide. The equipment is available and proven, from ruggedized computers to scanners to GPS. Implementing mobile computing can also mean success or failure in a competitive market, especially if you think like Hinton. “If you are a shaker at your utility and don`t move on this technology, I hope you`re still around in 2001 because we will be looking at your territory,” Hinton said. With that in mind, the META Group outlined the bottom line for utilities: Users selecting a new mobile computing system during the next two years should evaluate offerings in terms of adaptability to current and future business needs, capability to support non-core/value-added applications, and the vendor`s ability to minimize implementation risk. n

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The HAMMERHEAD P-233 is used in vehicle or on foot for a wide variety of utility applications.

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