Connecting the Field
From truck-mounted laptops to mobile laptops to smart phones, Northern Neck Electric Cooperative (NNEC) in Warsaw, Va., has come a long way in the past couple of years. "We have made our field crews into telecommuters," said Mike Hyde, customer information systems (CIS) and IT manager.
At first, like many utilities, NNEC outfitted its crew vehicles with truck-mounted laptops as a way for the crews to stay connected. "These days, though, since the crews got so attached to the computers, each crew now has its own standard 15-inch-screen laptop that is not truck-mounted," he noted. To reduce costs, the utility elected to go with basic models, rather than ruggedized models. However, it did install vibration-dampened hard drives, to get them to last as long as possible.
The portable laptops connect to the Internet using a wireless broadband card. "We found that Verizon coverage in our area is pretty good," he explained. The laptops have external antennas -- little "popsicle sticks" that crews can plug in. "With this, we get about 97 percent coverage in our area, which is pretty good, considering how rural we are," he continued. If a crew is in the 3 percent non-coverage area, they may need to drive a mile or so to get a connection.
The external antennas allow field crews to connect back to the office's local area network, using a secure virtual private network tunnel. With this connection, field crews can access the office's intranet, CIS and outage management system. They can also do customer lookups, ping meters and view the mapping system.
While line crews generally use the laptops in or close to the trucks, servicemen take theirs home with them. When they get a call from the customer response center that several member calls have come in related to an outage, they will log on and start pinging meters. "This gives them a good indication of what is happening before they leave their driveways, which will help them locate the source of the problem faster," said Hyde. "This leads to better customer service."
Eventually, the utility would like to get a laptop to each crew member, because the utility and its crews are using the technology more and more as a communication method.
In addition, managers and duty supervisors currently have Web-enabled smart phones, and all of them have the capability of getting into the intranet and pinging meters. This eliminates the need for duty supervisors to be home all of the time. "For example, if they get a call, they can perform some work when they are gone from home in the evenings," he said.
NNEC is thinking about expanding the usage of smart phones. "We are currently balancing how much we can do on laptops compared with how much we can do with cell phones," he explained. "Our current VPN appliance now supports cell phones, so we can ping meters and perform other functions using cell phones."
One potential drawback of providing smart phones to the field crews, though, is that the crews are often required to view the utility's map system while in the field. "Maps aren't really easy to view on cell phones," explained Hyde. "Eventually, though, everyone who needs this type of communication will either have their own laptop or their own smart phone."
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Intelligent Utility magazine is the new, thought-leading publication on how to successfully deliver information-enabled energy. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue.