Going mobile: meeting the challenge
Utility efficiencies from employees on-the-go
The speed of change is apparent in the rapid evolution in how utilities use mobility for taking out costs, tracking assets and freeing workers from location-based communications. There's little choice but to swim with the current and keep looking ahead.
"Technology is moving at an ever-accelerating rate," intoned utility analyst Warren Causey, principal at his eponymously named firm, who moderated an Energy Central webinar late last week on mobile workforce management. "If you're standing still, you're rapidly falling farther behind."
In the business units, the trend is BYOD—bring your own device. (Thank you, Steve Jobs, for ensuring that IT directors, who once had a lock on authorizing devices, would have to accommodate everything with a screen and a modem.)
In the field, the trends include both truck-mounted, laptop and handheld data devices that provide myriad applications from digital service orders to vehicle tracking and condition monitoring to field crew communications. The hard benefits are productivity and safety; the soft benefits include knowledge sharing and employee satisfaction.
Both the office and field environments pose challenges to IT directors seeking to build future-proofed platforms that can support years of technological change at the edge of the network, the webinar participants agreed.
In last week's webinar, two disparate utilities provided details around their strategies and lessons learned.
Michael Lamb, assistant CIO for investor-owned Xcel Energy, and Vic Hatridge, CIO, at the municipal utility Nashville Electric Service, provided a contrast in scale and business model while describing common challenges.
Xcel is a vertically integrated utility with a service territory that sprawls across eight states, serving about 3.4 million electricity customers. It is a large-scale and geographically dispersed organization that must seek a high degree of uniformity for its platforms, applications and procurement processes.
Lamb provided a sense of the pace of change in mobility's use when he noted that in 2004, no Xcel vehicles and field crews were equipped with mobile data terminals, while today MDTs are virtually ubiquitous. Fully one-fifth of Xcel employees have mobile communications and that number is growing at 20 percent per year, according to Lamb.
The scope of Xcel's mobility challenge is daunting. It must enable four major categories of mobile communication: employee-to-employee, employee-to-application, employee-to-asset and even asset-to-asset. You might even forget categories in this new world.
"Everything installed in the future must be connected to the network," Lamb said.
Lamb already is anticipating that the "very different technologies" used in mobile field and mobile office applications will converge, leading his IT department to look to the horizon when developing a platform that could accommodate that convergence.
One lesson learned is that IT must guide business units to focus first on the capabilities they need, not on the solution they might have in mind, Lamb said. IT then must develop options and flexible platforms that can accommodate the widest set of applications across the entire enterprise.
What's Xcel's five-year strategic outlook include? Five areas are concurrently being addressed:
- Evolve and optimize the mobile application portfolio
- Expand support for mobile device types and form factors
- Expand infrastructure to support mobility (a major impact on core IT systems)
- Expand security in all mobile applications
- Define new support for mobile offerings
According to Lamb, the last item is too often overlooked. Supporting mobility, whether for field or office workers, requires new skill sets and likely will become a 24/7 proposition with an ever-expanding inventory of endpoints. At the backend, mobile data management will grow to rival meter data management, so vast is the growth of devices and applications and their resulting data flows.
Lamb added that Xcel's old model for mobility was a complicated web of point-to-point solutions, which will be replaced going forward by a mobile enterprise application platform with its own "app store." That will help provide uniform security and reliability while managing costs.
In many cases, a utility can marshall the full capabilities of legacy networks, adding public networks where needed, particularly for high bandwidth applications, Lamb said.
Finally, digital security measures must be accompanied by risk-mitigation skill sets among employees.
In contrast, Nashville—the nation's 11th largest public utility by the number of customers served—has about 360,000 customers with a 700-square-mile service territory.
In NES's case, rapid technological change forces an "opportunistic approach," according to Hatridge. The key focus is vehicle-based mobility for rapid response to events, asset tracking productivity and safety. Nashville selected a mobility vendor and platform to accommodate future network evolution, he said.
Each service vehicle is its own Wi-Fi hotspot, which will provide the basis for new handheld and truck-mounted video applications in the future, such as automated dispatching, map queries, time entry and video uploads for documentation and trouble-shooting purposes.
Other Energy Central resources on this topic include:
Intelligent Utility Daily