Utilities` Wireless Communications Options Expanding
By Steven Wood, Associate Editor
Individual utility companies have been the sole providers of electricity to commercial, industrial and residential customers for many years. This regulated approach assured that everyone would have reliable, uninterrupted power regardless of the provider.
As states draw up reregulation plans, unprecedented competition will come from many sources. This change in the structure of the industry, combined with growing customer bases and higher customer service expectations, is causing utility companies to dramatically change the way they do business. And various forms of communications technology are helping them achieve dramatic results.
Improved communications from utilities can provide several benefits, including enhanced customer service and satisfaction by responding to more calls and answering inquiries faster and more accurately. It can also improve emergency and trouble call responses through instant access to contingency plans, as vehicles and crews are dispatched without taking up air time on congested and noisy radios. Utilities also can manage inventory and order parts remotely, which reduces paperwork and increases service time in the field. A well designed communications system can also improve field service productivity by allowing utility workers access to field orders and on-line repair information from their vehicles.
Having more accurate information at hand will decrease utility workers` time on the radio, enabling dispatchers to know the status of repairs and availability of troubleshooters. This will also increase utility workers` service time in the field. In addition, dispatchers will see reduced data-entry needs, allowing operators more time to focus on customer service.
Successful deployment of a wireless data solution cannot be accomplished without paying close attention to two basic rules, according to Michael Bauer, product management director for wireless server platforms at Cerulean Technologies.
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 network (LAN) environment. Even remote, dial-in access is now readily available at 56 Kbps and above. Data transactions, which can be quite large, are not hindered due to the available bandwidth or capacity.
Bauer points out that 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. This would be like trying to push a lemon through a soda straw.
Bauer believes, however, what the mobile worker really needs is the data (i.e., the juice) and not the entire application. So, by using common sense and technology to squeeze the lemon, one can send the juice through a soda straw to the mobile worker.
2. What is truly needed in real-time?
Rule number two of wireless transmission can be best illustrated using a utility field service example. Technicians 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 worker.
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, according to Bauer. This type of data can be easily stored on a CD-ROM loaded in a laptop computer in the technician`s truck. Bringing such a large file over a wireless link would take far to long even at 19.2 Kbps, thus making a wireless data solution an ineffective tool.
Which radio infrastructure is best for my organization?
Once the field service organization`s data exchange and work flow needs have been determined, it is time to decide what wireless infrastructure is best. Not every choice is available in all geographical areas, but the following guidelines can help the decision maker. Table 1 summarizes key points regarding the various radio infrastructures that can be deployed.
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 4,800 or 9,600 bps, and can be constructed with a modest investment, Bauer said. 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 can 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.
Bauer indicated that 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.
These public network options include CDPD, personal communications systems (PCS), BellSouth Wireless Data, 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, according to Bauer. He also pointed out that charges are based on usage (number of characters or packets sent) or on a fixed monthly fee.
In a presentation at DistribuTECH `99, Michael Wiebe, MW Consulting Inc. president, said that public networks offer several benefits. They offer a proven network technology with very little capital investment or operating expense. He also indicated that public networks have a nationwide coverage and a potential lower cost compared to current private network offerings. Another benefit, according to Wiebe, is the rapidly growing range of application providers incorporating public network systems.
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.
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, according to Bauer. Today`s technology has enabled the development of cost-competitive plug-and-play wireless mobile communications software packages, complete with flexible application programming interfaces (APIs), encryption functions and Web browser-based installation capabilities. These standards-based software packets are easily integrated with existing networks, multiple applications and information tools, including hand-held and car-based laptop computers and take as little as one week to deploy, slashing installation costs.
For utilities, information flow is becoming increasingly more and more important. By implementing a communications technology system that improves the level of service mobile workers provide to customers will put the utility a step ahead of the competition. Along with increased productivity and efficiency, utilities, in many situations, will see an improved bottom line. Utilities shopping for a communications solution will find many product offerings to choose from, each with specific benefits unique to their systems.
As Joe Mediate, Future Horizons president and CEO, stated, “From cellular to satellite, wireless communications have advanced in the past decade to a point where it has become a reliable alternative to LANs or dial-up. These systems should also provide connectivity options through a broad range of wireless and hard-wired options.” An example of this is Future-Horizons Field-PAC product. The communications networks supported include LAN/WAN, dial-up telephone networks, BellSouth Wireless Data, ARDIS/Data TAC, analog cellular, digital cellular and private radio networks (Ericsson, Motorola). By exploring the multitude of offerings, whether it is wireless or not, public or private, utilities will see improved customer service and faster response times to customer requests.