There was a time in the mid-80s when business and other organizations began to discover that “cell” phones were more than a novelty — they could be used to keep in touch with personnel in the field.
Utility providers and the contractors were quick to recognize the potential of wireless telephones, and soon crews, wherever they might be, could connect immediately with the home office and each other. Of course, there were areas where wireless devices wouldn’t work, and dropped calls were — and at times still are — a nuisance.
Nevertheless, wireless technology and advanced wireless mobile communication capabilities have changed the way the world works.
Telephone connectivity is only a part of today’s wireless network capabilities. Smart phones, many with push-to-talk capability for instant communication of workers around a work site, also can connect to the internet, send and receive e-mail and text messages and take photos and videos. Compact tablet computers also connect to the internet and allow instant change of plans and documents between the field and office.
Most of the buzz about an organization’s wireless capabilities center on mobile devices and applications. However, Michael Schaefer, executive director of Verizon Wireless national SMB marketing, points out that wireless communications begin with the network.
“The 3G or 4G LTE network is what makes a wireless system work,” Schaefer emphasized. “The network supports the mobile devices that fill the user’s needs. The network always is the starting point of a wireless communications system and as needs of the user grows, more bandwidth is necessary.”
Next, continued Schaefer, are the devices: wireless phones, smart phones, push-to-talk devices and tablets.
“On top of the devices,” said Schaefer, “are the applications that bring to life the functions that provide the customer with the needed tools to bring people together to talk, exchange information by texting and e-mails, take photos and real-time videos, provide GPS information and much more. Over the past couple of years, the applications base has become increasingly important.”
CTIA(The Wireless Association) estimates there are more than 1.5 million apps with more being introduced every day.
Who needs what wireless devices?
Primary questions facing owners and managers of many organizations is what devices and applications are needed and who will get them in order to implement a wireless communications program that fits the organization’s specific needs. The majority of those 1.5 million apps are for consumers, and most apps that relate to construction are not industry specific. Plus, every employee in the field doesn’t need a smart phone or iPad.
Earlier this year, members of the Federated Electrical Contractors (FEC) participated in a survey that addressed these questions. FEC is an international network of leading electrical contracting companies, many of whom are active in power and telecommunications construction.
The survey found field personnel provided smart phones and tablet computers primarily were general foremen and project managers, who used them for: accessing and updating project data (including drawings), sharing files, permitting, making videos and presentations (safety training was an example), various project management tasks, purchase requisitions, quality control applications, record keeping, remote computer access, remote data entry, simple takeoffs and for submitting bids.
The top applications cited by the survey: DropBox, Adobe PDF Reader, AutoCAD WS, Office 2, Evernote and Note Shelf.
Commonwealth Electric Company of the Midwest, Lincoln, NE, installs outside telecommunications plant and power transmission and distribution systems in addition to commercial and industrial electrical work.
Nick Cole, Commonwealth manager of construction services, said the company considers itself ahead of the curve in the use of wireless and digital mobile communications technologies.
From management’s perspective, Cole said wireless technology is a key element in receiving, sending and responding to important information related to specific projects. A primary benefit of using a wireless communications system with field personnel is being able to answer questions immediately, whether field or management related.
“Information flow to and from a job site must be immediate and detailed,” said Cole. “The timeliness of communication and information flow relates directly to productivity and potential lost time, which directly translates to greater or lesser profitability.”
Cole said management personnel at all locations use smart phones. Some also use iPad-type devices. All field supervisory personnel, service electricians and warehouse personnel use wireless (non-smart phone) telephone/two-way communications devices. Field personnel are not provided devices that can access the internet.
“By utilizing smart phones,” continued Cole, “we can remain current every second of the day, which we believe directly affects the profitability of our work. Immediate day-to-day communication between the project managers and job-site supervisors is critical to our ability to be successful as a company. Devices with the two-way communications feature allow on-site communication and direct communication between the job-site and warehouse personnel.”
In addition, Cole said the wireless communications system brings peace of mind knowing management is in immediate contact with field personnel during emergencies.
Impact of wireless
FieldAware, a new company offering field service applications for small- to medium-sized organizations, cites an independent study prepared by the Aberdeen Group about the impact field service communications can have on a company’s bottom line.
Conclusions of the study quoted in a FieldAware white paper, Advantages Of True Mobility In Field Service Applications, found that effectively utilized mobile field service automation programs could increase worker productivity by an average of 27 percent, customer satisfaction by an average of 19 percent, increase service revenues by an average of 13 percent and overall profitability by an average of 17 percent.
“A key reason companies can achieve these types of results is that deploying mobile service solutions allows field workers to more effectively interact with back-office systems and easily share critical data on customers, jobs, assets and inventories with the entire service team,” said the white paper. “Basically, it is a process that digitizes the service workflow to eliminate the need for paper work-orders, significantly streamlines the scheduling process, dramatically increases field staff productivity and captures new revenue-generating opportunities by using very affordable automation technology.”
The white paper says that cloud-based field service management can operate smart phones and tablets with native apps now available at a fraction of the cost of legacy systems because they eliminate the need for proprietary software and hardware, enabling every member of a service team to share information over the Internet and streamline the field service management process using Apple or Android mobile devices.
Clearly a growing number of organizations — including those involved in utility construction and maintenance — are taking advantage of the benefits from wireless communications. Rapidly increasing business usage, along with demands from other users, are accounting for a growing percentage of available wireless broadband capacity.
Spectrum (the radio frequencies designated for specific uses) is the backbone of the wireless industry, including wireless data. The federal government allocates spectrum, designates specific uses and assigns frequencies within allocations. Mobile communications assignments are granted both to commercial service providers and private users.
There are those in the government and communications industry concerned that the demand for wireless broadband soon will use up available spectrum.
“Spectrum is to wireless communications what lanes of a highway are to motor vehicles,” said Amy Storey, CTIA assistant vice president, public affairs. “Just as clogged highways can slow or stop traffic, mobile devices must have adequate spectrum to communicate.”
Already, carriers are limiting data services available to individual smart phone users.
“Looking ahead, spectrum availability is an issue facing the wireless industry,” said Storey. “Spectrum is a finite resource. For the future, it is critical that service provides be able to purchase unused and under-utilized spectrum.”
Telecommunications industry analyst Jeff Kagan warns data transmission will begin to slow in 2013, and that too much is at stake not to immediately find solutions to expand wireless broadband capacity.