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Pen Computers in PUBLIC UTILITY

Introductive Retrospective
"There you are, watching your favorite TV show. Suddenly the lights flicker out along with your TV. After sitting in the dark for a moment you stumble to the phone and call your local power utility (at least the phone works!). You are greeted by a pleasant customer service representative (CSR) who greets you with your name. "How did she know that?" you say to yourself. She says they are aware of your problem. It seems there is a downed power line two blocks from your house and they already have field crews on the scene. You wonder out loud how the heck they got there so fast. The CSR tells you that the problem was detected immediately using their telemetrics system and that field service crews already in the area were automatically dispatched to the site. Unbeknownst to you, during the conversation the CSR's terminal flashes an update and she tells you to sit tight, your power should be back on in about fifteen minutes. As you hang up the phone you think about telemetrics and automatic dispatch and computers and wonder how they ever handled this before."-Pen Computing Magazine, February 1996

In the three years since the paragraph above was written, the vision of a customer-centric world driven by instant information to and from the field has not changed among utility companies. If anything, the vision has become richer and more far-reaching as utilities battle for positioning in the marketplace with carefully honed images. Vision is what will separate leading companies from the companies they consume.

Marketing is coming of age among utilities. In a deregulated environment, one gas molecule or electron is pretty much like another, regardless of who is selling it. Yet brand awareness must be built and brand loyalty won. In Ohio, for example, consumers can comparison-shop and select a natural gas provider at a single website. With a few clicks of the mouse at, a customer can evaluate offerings and choose a gas provider from among 27 suppliers with the same ease as purchasing books at Certainly, the ease of switching providers is not this easy in every market... yet. Ultimately, consumers will demand a comparable level of flexibility.

Many consumers across the US have seen the blitz of commercials from out-of-region energy providers and generally ignored them with the "what has this got to do with me?" response. Few are aware that the ads are just precursors to far more aggressive campaigns to win brand awareness in a cluttered energy marketplace. But the glitzy "feel good" commercials designed to promote brand awareness are not enough to earn customer loyalty: That takes substance!

How does a utility build brand loyalty when its product is indistinguishable from its competitors' products? Most utilities know the answer. They must build stronger relationships with their customers because the relationship with their customers is their "brand." There is little else to sell. Marginally lower prices may be provided through greater efficiencies, but there are limits to efficiency and the differential advantages may only be temporary. Minor price differences will not motivate customers. In New York State, where four million people are eligible to switch suppliers, only 10,000 have done so by last June. Brand loyalty is ultimately a factor in maintaining a strong relationship with the customer. That's a daunting challenge in an industry that has been cast for decades as being made up of inefficient, uncaring, and impersonal monopolies.

Building relationships with its customers is particularly challenging for utilities. Utilities are like lawyers-you may never really know one unless you have a problem. But when a problem arises, you want only the best. Daily life is completely dependent upon the energy provided by utilities yet few accolades are heard for the steady availability of energy. Loss of energy, even for a short term, is nothing less than catastrophic and leads to outrage. "Good" utilities, it seems, are those that never give cause to be the subject of conversation. How can relationships be built when the ideal state for many customers and their utilities is complete detachment?

The answer is obvious. First, utilities must be more proactive in bringing value to their customers by eliminating problems, no matter how large or small. Whether guiding large users in managing peak demands or making monthly statements more understandable for home customers, utilities must work to make life better for their customers. Certainly, attention must be given to preventing loss of power, but quickly recovering from a power failure is equally if not more important. Nieman-Marcus, the upscale retailer known for its legendary service, always promoted customer complaints as opportunities to respond quickly and cement a relationship with a customer for life. Like other service organizations, utilities are judged by their performance in times of crisis more than when things are going smoothly. It's at times of crisis that customer loyalty will be won or lost.

The speedy flow of information to and from the field is at the heart of dealing with any crisis, and mobile computers are increasingly important as communication centers. While implementing broad field automation programs will not guarantee the highest level of customer service, not automating field personnel will limit their ability to respond. Computers in the field are only a thread in the fabric of a comprehensive customer service program, but a break in any thread can cause a major unraveling in the quality of service.

The programs described in this section are only quick glimpses of programs from utilities in the process of achieving their visions of the future.

-Don Paisley, Walkabout Computers

BellSouth / Itronix
In 1997, BellSouth Corporation began the TechPlus program, investing US$163 million in the development of a new mobile computing platform to enhance communications with their field workers. Providing telecommunications, wireless communications, cable and digital TV, and Internet and data services to nearly 34 million customers in 19 countries worldwide, BellSouth required an extensive system that would enable field technicians to access data easily and quickly. Itronix Corporation offered BellSouth a mission critical mobile computing solution that ensured fast and dependable computing power from any location. By placing powerful mobile computing tools in the hands of their front line workforce, BellSouth is enabling field technicians to interface with customers more effectively and thus provide quicker, more accurate service.

BellSouth decided to switch from their original Craft access system to TechPlus to simplify network access and save precious time on the front lines. The notebook that BellSouth technicians use to communicate with the new system is a ruggedized PC made by Itronix Corp. The selection of Itronix was based on Itronix's understanding of the field requirements of BellSouth's technicians and the durability of the wireless X-C 6250 notebook. In addition to these important features, the Itronix solution was a true computing tool, with an ergonomic keyboard and pen-enabled screen that allowed field technicians to easily compute in diverse locations and situations. BellSouth technicians now had a rugged, wirelessly enabled computing tool equipped with a 200MHz Pentium processor in hand during every service trip.

BellSouth field technicians can now easily access the existing computer system for network testing, maintenance, work assignments, and customer information. The Itronix X-C 6250 connects wirelessly to the system with an integrated radio via the BellSouth wireless mobile data network. The amount of data being transmitted is small-usually less than 300 bytes-allowing technicians to retrieve work orders and customer files quickly.

The Itronix solution has worked to greatly increase the levels of customer service BellSouth can provide. The cost justification for this project was based upon the time BellSouth technicians have saved logging on, processing orders, and accessing information. Now, the time to close out a service order has been reduced from five minutes to 51 seconds, and the time required to view a line record has been reduced from more than two minutes to only 43 seconds. "The new mobile system has transformed the way every technician in BellSouth's operations works and helped us provide faster service to our customers," said Gloria Perkins, director, Installation and Maintenance for BellSouth.

Contact Bob Morrow, Marketing Communications Manager, Itronix Corporation, 800-441-1309

Indiana Gas / MSDI / Itronix
Utility companies are searching for ways to enhance customer service. With the goal of reducing response times while maintaining efficient work order process flow, many utilities are turning to technology to increase customer satisfaction.

Indiana Gas, a subsidiary of Indiana Energy Inc., is a public utility company that provides local distribution of natural gas and related services to approximately 470,000 residential, commercial, and industrial customers in an area covering two-thirds of the state. With a long history dating back to the early 1850s, Indiana Gas evaluates operations from the customer's point of view, striving to provide the highest level of convenience and service.

In 1996, Indiana Gas decided to modernize its customer information systems infrastructure. Indiana Gas, in conjunction with IEI Services LLC, the non-regulated technology services provider of Indiana Energy, Inc., began the Customer Work Management Information Systems (CWIS) project, which included the implementation of the Price Waterhouse / Coopers Customer Information and Work Management Systems.

Although the new customer information system was a critical part of the CWIS project, Indiana Gas also recognized the need to integrate a mobile workforce solution with the new system. According to Dave Brattain, Director of Information Technology at IEI Services, "The new CWIS is a critical component in our customer service process, but we also needed a mech-

anism that would allow us to update customer information as the field work is performed. Through mobile workforce management technology, we would not only be able to automate the dispatching process but also provide wireless access to the updated customer information from the field."

Transforming operations from a paper-based, voice dispatching process to one that is fully automated through the use of mobile computers and wireless data communications is a significant operational change. In November 1997, the intensive evaluation was completed, and Indiana Gas selected Itronix' ruggedized X-C 6250 notebooks and MDSI's Advantex-Utility solution.

The Itronix/MDSI mobile workforce management solution automates the management of field service operations, determining the appropriate technician to perform the work based upon customer-defined criteria including geography, skill set, and availability. Dispatchers receive work orders in real-time throughout the day, viewing them online as opposed to having to sift through stacks of paper orders. Once allocated, the order is then transmitted via wireless communication networks to the technician's mobile computer in the field. Technicians also transmit completed information back to the corporate office to update host databases within minutes of order completion.

"This process will eliminate virtually 100% of the paperwork that was once associated with the dispatching of orders and reporting of completion information. We expect to dramatically reduce the margin of error that previously existed as a result of the significant amount of data entry," comments Brattain.

The implementation of this new mobile computing solution at Indiana Gas Company will streamline communications and update customer information systems allowing employees to access accurate, up-to-date customer information from their desktops. "Indiana expects to realize significant productivity gains that will translate into reduced response times and, overall, a higher level of customer service," states Brattain.

Contact Bob Morrow, Marketing Communications Manager, Itronix Corporation at 800-441-1309

Allegheny Power / Walkabout
Allegheny Power is deploying a powerful new mobile mapping system to boost productivity in the field and to leverage the company's existing GIS technology. A large electric utility, Allegheny Power provides service to parts of Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. With six hundred service reps in the field and with a variety of ongoing maintenance and repair activities, the utility saw an opportunity to cut costs and achieve large productivity gains by providing automation tools to field personnel.

After investigating alternatives and learning more about mobile computing, the company decided it wanted a truly mobile hardware platform that would be easy to use in or outside a vehicle. The utility chose Walkabout Computer's Hammerhead tablet, a rugged, high-performance pen computer capable of supporting a robust application such as mapping.

For software, Allegheny Power turned to MapFrame Corporation whose FieldSmart map viewer combines a high level of functionality with a simple and intuitive interface. Actions such as tapping, printing, and drawing "gestures" on the screen (a circle to zoom in, for example) allow users to access information from the utility's Smallworld GIS without having to become GIS experts.

MapFrame was also able to customize the application by integrating several different data types-a big help in terms of providing map coverage useful to field personnel.

With their new mobile systems, users can quickly locate poles, circuits, substations, street addresses, and cities or towns. To display a substation, for example, a substation name is selected from a list. The system then displays all circuits associated with that substation. To locate a structure or pole, users print a number in a field and the map zooms to that object.

One of the advantages of automated mapping vs. paper maps is the ability to access data associated with map symbols. At Allegheny Power, this feature is expected to be useful in terms of analysis and problem solving. For example, field personnel can quickly display a detailed map of a selected area showing structures and their attributes (compatible unit code, phasing information, etc.). This lets users evaluate the relationship of structures to one another, a helpful tool in maintenance and repair activities.

In the future, mobile mapping will be integrated with other field applications including distribution design and work management. Allegheny Power believes that, with so much of its work done outside the office, mobile computing will result in important strategic advantages for the company.

Contact MapFrame at 214-741-2264 or email them at

Central Hudson / Computers at Work / Telxon Corporation
Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation, headquartered in Poughkeepsie, New York, in an effort to find a replacement for the discontinued IBM 730T ThinkPad, began evaluating several hardware platforms to be used to support their Field Operations System. After extensive evaluations and pilot tests, Central Hudson selected the Telxon PTC 1194. The PTC 1194 was selected not only for its large display and rugged features, but also for its versatility and flexibility. Central Hudson was especially impressed that the PTC 1194 can achieve several different configurations through the optional attachable keyboard module and the vehicle cradle. With the optional 89-key keyboard module attached, the unit can be used as a traditional notebook. The benefit of the keyboard module is that users can easily connect to a network, type reports, and use standard off-the-shelf software packages.

Central Hudson is also taking advantage of the 1194's configurable communications options. One of the most important functions of a mobile computer is its ability to easily communicate with host systems. In the past this meant users would need to connect to the network through PCMCIA devices, which in turn would connect to external cables. This increased the time a user would need to spend configuring the device and, as a result, increased the chances of system failure, not to mention lost parts. In the 1194, all communications are integrated into the device making network connections easier for the user. Central Hudson, in addition to using Ethernet, is also using Telxon's integrated 2.4DS radio in a number of devices. Users with the radio-enabled devices can connect to the network while their trucks are in the yard, without any user intervention. The communications flexibility of the 1194 gives Central Hudson the information it needs in a timely manner while allowing its workers to concentrate on their jobs, not the system.

Computers at Work is helping Central Hudson in this transition by converting the application software from DOS to a Windows environment and, at the same time, incorporating several enhancements. The application software includes dozens of modules covering activities such as collections, meter changes, inspections, and various work orders. Additionally, it includes timesheets and performs vehicle tracking. Communications modules transfer information between the field units and the central database. The original software was written in C and PenRight! for DOS. Computers at Work is converting the software to a newer version of C and PenRight! for Windows and, at the same time, modifying the screen displays to take full advantage of the Telxon PTC 1194's larger display.

Computers at Work: 973-299-9311,
Telxon: 281-719-5869,,

Consolidated Edison / AvantGo
In many businesses, it is common practice for employees to "take a moment" or "get back to you first thing tomorrow morning" when making an important decision. It is a luxury that utility companies cannot afford. In New York, Consolidated Edison Company is using handheld technology to assist in providing more accurate information for real-time decision making. The result is better service for the more than 8.4 million people in New York City and surrounding areas who rely on the company for electric and natural gas services.

Consolidated Edison (ConEd) monitors its power around the clock. Using distribution network grids, which distribute power to each area, ConEd monitors the power through the feeders. When a feeder goes down or a transformer overloads, the grids send a signal to one of the customer service "control centers," which then takes the appropriate action. Relying on sophisticated intranet technology, the company's control centers are critical operating units for ConEd.

Additionally, ConEd has teams of technicians who go out and inspect electrical facilities throughout the city. They climb poles and examine manholes, conduct routine maintenance and repair storm-damaged equipment, and then send their findings into one of the customer service control centers.

Traditionally, field service technicians have sent their findings into ConEd's control centers via radio, but the company is looking at handheld technology to provide more accurate and real-time information transfer. For example, before leaving their offices, ConEd managers can now synchronize their palmsized handheld devices with current status, alarms, and other data about their electrical distribution grid. The information is gathered from their existing control center intranet applications using AvantGo software.

According to David Hendrie, IR (information resources) Manager of Engineering Automation for ConEd, "The download gives employees information to browse on their handheld device, so that when they call in from the field, they know what questions they need to ask based on changing conditions."

By using AvantGo's software on their handheld devices, the cost, complexity, and time spent developing new applications are also greatly reduced. "Our IR team doesn't have to learn how to develop new applications specifically for handheld devices, we just have to remember the screen size is smaller and that we need to be careful about images," says Mr. Hendrie. AvantGo handles all of the application resizing and the handheld to application synchronization, allowing ConEd to seamlessly extend its intranet application to any handheld device.

Looking ahead, Mr. Hendrie anticipates deploying thousands of palmsized devices into the field using AvantGo's interactive forms capabilities-a solution that would cost much less than the rugged data entry machines currently in limited use. He also expects to add modem or wireless capabilities in the very near future, so field forces can update centralized information and get the most current service requests, along with locations, directions, and other information.

"I envision our technicians arriving each day to pick up a handheld, containing new data about the workday, and having that information captured from a central synchronization kiosk," Mr. Hendrie explains. "Critical assignments and information will be updated from the field in real-time while routine inspection reports will be synchronized at the end of the day."

He adds, "It's exciting because handheld technology will soon help us to not only provide more accurate information upon which important decisions are being made, but gather reciprocal field information in a timely manner as well."

AvantGo: 650-638-3399,,

Two years ago, Thermogas, the fifth-largest US propane retailer (180 retail outlets), decided to make a big change and go from a product company to a service company. Every employee would become, in effect, a salesperson. Drivers would spend less time driving and more time with customers. Bookkeepers would spend less time keying in numbers and more time on sales and service.

However, employees were bogged down by an old handwritten delivery ticket system. Drivers making a delivery would write out tickets, then bring them back to the office, where they would be re-keyed into the system. Efforts were duplicated and errors were inevitable. When bookkeepers weren't keypunching, they were on the radio with drivers giving account updates and address changes.

Then Thermogas got together with TouchStar and their TouchPC. "At first, our drivers were very reluctant, even afraid, to switch to a handheld computer system," said Brian Bernard, Supervisor of Operations Administration for Thermogas, "But it went wonderfully. In less than two weeks, they were hooked."

Now when the driver goes on his route, he doesn't have to call the office to get directions or ask for an account balance; everything is right in the computer. The driver simply enters the volume, captures a signature on-screen, and prints out the invoice and receipt on the spot. The driver's input is downloaded directly to the Thermogas home office, eliminating duplication and keypunch errors.

Thermogas credits the quick acceptance to the TouchPC's user-friendly design. The TouchPC touchscreen has simple, large buttons that respond to the "finger touch" of the operator. It is easy to use even in freezing temperatures with a heavily gloved hand.

The printed tickets with the Thermogas logo have given drivers a more professional image and often draws comments from its customers. Most importantly, the driver can use the time he saves to get to know customers and better understand their needs. And the former bookkeepers, re-titled Customer Service Representatives, can now take time to service the customer, rather than process the tickets.

Thermogas carefully researched all the hottest handhelds on the market before going with TouchStar's TouchPC. The TouchPC stood out not only for ruggedness and ease of use, but also because it allowed Thermogas the option of writing their own applications for the trucks. The TouchPC development tools allowed them to control quality and avoid expensive licensing charges and since the application belongs to Thermogas, it's easy to make changes when they update their accounting system.

TouchStar Technology LLC: (918) 588 830,,

ntergy/WalkAbout Computers
Entergy Management had a vision: If they could automate their field workers' inspection efforts, they could maximize the use of these resources through accurate maintenance planning. The ultimate goal was to phase out the paper trail and manual data reporting procedures to improve maintenance, planning, and crew dispatching. They knew a field device was a necessity to achieve this goal. The ultimate machine must have a fast processor, a full size display that is viewable in direct sunlight, a fast internal GPS receiver and modem capability, and had a pen interface. They chose the Hammerhead by WalkAbout.

The project planning began in the mid 1990s and targeted three specific areas: transmission, substation, and maintenance applications. A contractor performed the mapping of all transmission and substation facilities. The transmission project was completed in 1997 and successes were modified for use in the substation and maintenance programs, which are in the final deployment phases. Framework of the software was designed with templates, which would allow easy customization for equipment types and enable reuse across several of the applications. For the project to be successful, inspection data would be collected, work orders rapidly generated and communicated to the proper crew, and timesheets automatically generated-all on mobile data terminals (MDTs).

Currently, data collection and reporting have been implemented. Two types of crews are equipped with Hammerhead computers. Inspectors can navigate to a substation, perform detailed site and equipment inspection, and create work requests at the job site. The information collected is communicated back to the central database via modem mounted in the field computer. Data is analyzed, equipment parameters are updated, and pending work orders are sent to the appropriate crew. All work requests for the specific location are collected and then downloaded to the crew field computer. In the final deployed version of the software, when the crew arrives on the scene, the work will be presented as a checklist. The crew completes the work requests; their time is captured; their field computer data is uploaded to the central system, which closes the work requests; and then the crew timesheets are automatically generated.

The business lead for these projects notes that, since implementation, inspector/technician terminology has standardized and the field data collected is more accurate. There is no reported measurement of success at this time but efficiencies are expected through reduced travel time for the crews, and reduced equipment failure since work is rapidly reported and repairs expedited. There will be an evaluation of the project after all systems are in place-within two years.

Contact Walkabout Computers at 614-899-6119 or visit

Michigan Consolidated Gas / MDSI / Intermec / Motorola
Michigan Consolidated Gas Company (MichCon) is committed to upgrading its systems, consolidating its communications network, and extending the reach of its wireless web. The enterprise-wide scope of the project involves automated dispatching and transmission and receipt of customer service and construction/maintenance work order information.

At the heart of the project is the integration of MDSI's Advantex-Utility mobile workforce management system and Severn Trent's STORMS work management system. Advantex-Utility manages customer service work, typically single day, single resource assignments. STORMS manages long-term construction/maintenance projects requiring multiple crews performing multiple tasks within an individual project.

Additionally, MichCon consolidated its voice and data communications with Motorola's ASTRO wireless data network. All field workers were also equipped with Norand's PEN*KEY 6620 mobile computers (provided by Intermec Technologies).

MichCon's strategy to integrate Advantex-Utility and STORMS allows the management of a majority of field resources through a central data repository. Advantex-Utility manages staffing information including work schedules, vacation time, and skill sets; builds construction/maintenance crews; and tracks availability of crews and equipment. By using Advantex-Utility in this manner, MichCon eliminates the risk of two information systems containing contradictory statistics.

Advantex-Utility sends updates to STORMS on field resource availability and STORMS schedules the construction/maintenance crews. Once scheduled, the order is then sent back to Advantex-Utility for dispatching. Construction/maintenance crews now receive and transmit information through the same channels as the customer service technicians. Status updates are passed back to Advantex-Utility and, in return, Advantex-Utility updates STORMS. With this method, constant analysis is performed and MichCon ensures that projects are on schedule.

Karen Anderson, Project Manager at MichCon, explains, "MichCon has leveraged the strengths of Advantex-Utility and STORMS. Employees are now able to perform at higher levels due to the availability of up-to-date information. The productivity increases, overtime reductions, and just-in-time materials management practices will lead to significant financial benefits."

80% of MichCon's field workforce (approximately 1000 field workers) has been successfully automated and future plans exist to rollout the remaining 20%. MichCon's initiative to integrate Advantex-Utility and STORMS exemplifies the utility industry's current focus on deploying enterprise-wide solution strategies.

Heather McGinnis at MDSI:,

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