Wireless Data for Utility Field Service -- Good Strategy, or Colossal Waste of Money?
Market pressures are causing utilities to rethink how they manage field service. Is real-time wireless data connectivity a good automation strategy, or a colossal waste of money?
Next to the power our electric utilities produce, a field technician's time is their most perishable resource. Utilities are looking at wireless data -- connecting handheld computers to the main office over cellular phone networks -- as a possible way to meet tomorrow's service demands with today's staffing levels. What's the reality?
May 22, 2004
Wireless carriers promise to make far-flung field service organizations more efficient by issuing handheld wireless computing devices to every tech or crew.
Utilities imagine the ideal outcome: Service calls will be handled by the nearest truck, which will arrive on time because it's computer dispatched. Techs will download service histories and schematics, instead of making calls and trips to the home office. Service calls will be resolved on the first visit. Customers will be more satisfied.
In this ideal scenario, crews will handle more service calls per day. They'll use their down time more productively by completing paperwork on-screen -- eliminating error-prone data entry jobs and helping foremen track the activities of their crews.
The reality of wireless data could be quite different. Even with the latest technologies, like GPRS and EDGE, data transmission speeds are still a formidable barrier. Like the highest number on your car's speedometer, there is little likelihood that a user will ever experience the rated maximum. Savvy IT managers wouldn't be surprised to find incremental gains in speed are small, overstated, and promised years ahead of availability.
Then there's the issue of coverage. Each faster network technology must first be deployed by the carrier, throughout the utility's service district -- a process that costs millions and takes years. Rural areas, where the benefits would be the greatest, tend to have the slowest, poorest coverage.
Device cost and management are also a concern. Not all techs are quick to embrace new technologies. Then, to take advantage of higher speeds, their costly mobile devices must be upgraded or, more likely, replaced. Buckets and trenches are hazardous places for electronics. Yet, someone must repair and support a growing number of delicate gadgets.
Someone must also support a sophisticated collection of networks and applications. Legacy systems, previously accessed only from inside the building, will be exposed to the public internet. Concerned about IP network access and the security of transmitted data, utilities will be trying to implement wireless VPNs, on top of everything else.
Such complex systems put utilities at the mercy of their weakest vendor. Multiple providers, experts in their narrow domains, will each offer a full range of services -- imagine cellular carriers offering strategic advice, or CRM companies attempting device deployment -- in their struggle for complete account ownership.
Any of these constraints will limit wireless applications from reaching their full potential. Then there's the political arena within the organization.
Some utilities are already pursuing a build vs. buy approach that will ultimately put them in control of their own IT destiny. After all, utilities have the infrastructure to deploy their own fast network connections (much faster than wireless) throughout their service districts. It's an enviable position.
Add the possibility of using the utility's own broadband network for automated meter reading, monitoring equipment, and delivering rural broadband. Suddenly, there's a host of good reasons not to rush into a point solution for field service automation.
In the meantime, maybe radio dispatching isn't all that bad.