Mobile Communications for Utilities

mobile communications

Back in the 1980s, my father had a car phone, and yes, he thought he was cool.  If you’ve never seen one of these, it’s literally a corded phone in your car typically attached to the center console. It was all the rage for the 1980s luxury crowd.  Well, like the 8-track, VHS tape, typewriter and abacus, as we all know the clunky car phone of the 1980s is now an antique.  But my father at least had one thing right: he saw the benefit of mobile communications.

Nowadays the concept of “mobile communications” is better defined as “mobile connectivity.”  Connectivity enables real-time communication of information, more efficient troubleshooting, and more efficient allocation and deployment of resources.  It’s an absolute blessing in situations where the workforce is spread out, which makes it perfect for utilities.

Why Mobile Communications Make Sense

Two-thirds of the workforce in a typical utility is field based.  So if you can make the jobs of field employees even slightly more efficient, it can make a big impact in terms of getting more done.  For example, field employees could be provided with tablets that integrate with backend systems to display GIS-powered outage maps.  The devices could also be configured to allow field-based outage updates, coordinate crew activities, and remotely update and complete work orders.

I hope this example clearly shows how mobile connectivity could be leveraged to improve productivity and shorten the time it takes to restore customers.  Simply put, boosting the connectivity of field workers helps utility companies respond to outages faster, which obviously makes customers happier.  It will also make the regulators happier.  The real-time flow of communication helps reduce downtime and speed up crew dispatching.  Restoration costs will decrease, and the lights will get back on sooner.

I would also expect field workers to be happier when “mobilized.”  Nobody likes antiquated, inefficient processes.  The technology I am describing here will make things easier for employees which by default will boost morale.  An added bonus of mobile connectivity is that it reduces paper waste because more tasks – such as work order management – can be handled digitally.  There’s no downside to helping the environment.

How to Mobilize

Sorry Charlie, the “how” of this is well beyond the scope of this article.  Suffice it to say, it’s not simply a matter of ordering a few hundred smart phones or tablets.  Implementing mobile communications takes a lot of planning.  And the implementation process will be different for every company because every utility has different needs, requirements, cultures and philosophies.  So there are no silver-bullet answers, only questions that need to be asked to find the best approach for your specific organization:

  • What are the goals and objectives for the mobilization initiative?
  • What is the most appropriate type of device for your field workers? What will they be most receptive to? What about the impact of PPE, gloves or sun glare on the devices they will use?
  • What systems should the mobile devices “talk to”?
  • What type of analytics or intelligence needs to be built-in?
  • What processes will be impacted by the mobilization initiative? Who will update the emergency restoration plan to document the new “mobilized” processes?
  • What about security?
  • What kind of training will field workers need to receive on the new technologies?
  • What is the strategic roadmap to execute the mobilization initiative? Will it be a phased or a big-bang approach?
  • Etc.?

Okay, you get the point.  What I’m talking about here is no simple undertaking because it involves a lot of information, people and circumstances.  Plus, the mobilization decisions made now must also work for the future.  So obviously, the effort requires a well thought-out strategy that becomes part of the restoration plan.

Summary

There are plenty of solid reasons to invest in the mobile connectivity of utility field workers.  Effective use of mobile communications can reduce operational and employee costs, speed up restoration efforts, optimize staff time, improve reporting and analytics, and more.  The key is to plan it out correctly so you don’t inadvertently end up rolling out the technological equivalent of a 1980s car phone in the year 2014!

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