How do the recent trends in mobile computing apply to utilities?

Yvonne Chong
MDSI Mobile Data Solutions

As businesses continue to emphasize and require anytime-anywhere access to corporate information, we see more enterprise applications with wireless components enabling far more than email exchange. And it’s all easier to use and deploy. Utilities rejoice, right?

While utilities will be able to capitalize on the lion’s share of the trends in mobile computing, some may not work as well for their unique environment, and others will take longer to adopt and could require modified implementations.

The most prevalent trends in mobile computing are 1) smaller device form factors, 2) faster networks and, 3) the convergence of voice and data into a single device.

With portability becoming a factor for many companies, PDAs such as the Pocket PC 2002 are receiving more and more interest. Part of this interest is driven by the proliferation of advertisements for consumer devices and wireless communication. In addition to high portability, the low price of these devices is obviously an additional draw for technology planners who wish to roll out a mobile data solution to a larger portion of their field force.

Pocket PCs are ideal for consumers and for many organizations. In utilities, they are well suited for functions like collection and meter reading, but may not be ideal for more data intensive operations. MDSI Mobile Data Solutions Inc. has been delivering wireless mobile workforce management solutions for 10 years and has implemented just about every mobile computing alter-native in the delivery of their system.

While Pocket PCs are enticing at first, most of MDSI’s customers have found that the small ? VGA of the typical Pocket PC makes viewing the screen a challenge for field workers, and the horizontal and vertical scrolling necessary to see large volumes of service order data reduces their efficiency. The sleek consumer form makes it easier to drop and in the hands of a gloved worker or someone used to rugged, bulky tools, somewhat challenging to use. Finally, the short product lives of consumer models, and the likelihood that they could be damaged, lost or stolen, makes maintaining and/or replacing the devices with the same product a daunting task for administrators and a frustrating one for users.

Additionally, utilities, like most organizations, will take advantage of the trend towards higher speed networks, especially public networks like GPRS and 1xRTT. However, due to the requirement to service both city and rural customers, some utilities will need a combination of public and private networks to ensure coverage, as well as wireless LANs that enable no-cost data exchange at the depot. The added benefits of higher speed networks and wireless LANs will be more mobile mapping capabilities such as the exchange of diagram markups and the seamless distribution of wireless software. The trend to higher speed networks will mean that many utility customers who currently use CDPD will have to find alternatives as these providers have recently announced plans for terminating service.

Finally, there is the trend towards a single device for voice and data. There are many utilities currently using voice and data for workforce management and other mobile data solutions on trunk radio or iDEN networks. In these instances users are required to physically switch between voice and data as separate applications. With device convergence and modem support it will be easier to use voice and data with other networks in an integrated manner. And due to the growing interest in voice-based applications, the latest technologies like Voice XML enable applications to integrate voice and data. MDSI has already showed that a voice and browser client can work hand-in-hand to update the order status of the same field technician.

At MDSI, we know very well that the utility industry is a natural fit for mobile computing solutions. With large field forces who work to keep major infrastructure systems up and running and entire communities safe, utilities are quickly moving to research, purchase and implement solutions that allow them to wirelessly manage their diverse workforce and communicate in real time between the enterprise and the field. MDSI customers have successfully implemented Advantex, MDSI’s mobile workforce management solution, and, we believe, have significantly reduced costs and increased efficiency as a result.

Over time, the majority of utilities across North America are likely to adopt mobile computing and wireless workforce management technologies that will help them to be more competitive and provide better customer service. The latest technology trends, including smaller, more affordable devices, higher speed networks, and the convergence of voice and data only make the future look a lot brighter, but selective application of the technology and a little bit of patience will be required.

Yvonne Chong
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Chong is a product marketing manager with MDSI Mobile Data Solutions in Canada. MDSI can be contacted at 604-207-6000.

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