Magazine Article | September 24, 2008

Experience The Field Service Benefits Of GPS

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

A GPS solution is helping Time Warner Cable of Central Texas save thousands of dollars a month in fuel, while increasing technician productivity.

Integrated Solutions, October 2008

Doug Bender, workforce management supervisor for Time Warner Cable of Central Texas

GPS technology is currently making waves in the consumer market. Just turn on the television, wait a few minutes, and more likely than not you'll see a commercial illustrating how a personal GPS navigation device or GPS-enabled cell phone can help you streamline your hectic personal life. Consumers are responding to this barrage of promotional messaging by purchasing GPS technologies in droves. In fact, research by Gartner  estimates that approximately 60 million personal navigation units will be sold in 2008, and this figure will swell to nearly 110 million units worldwide in 2012.

By comparison, the business benefits of GPS have received much less fanfare. This is surprising, considering a business has much more to gain from GPS than just being able to locate the nearest Chinese restaurant. For field service organizations in particular, GPS can have a positive impact on technician productivity and help lower vehicle maintenance costs. Time Warner Cable of Central Texas is one company that has firsthand experience of the measurable business benefits GPS can deliver. The company recently installed the technology in its technician vehicles and realized a marked increase in the number of jobs each technician is able to complete a day, as well as a significant reduction in monthly fuel costs.

Time Warner Cable of Central Texas is no stranger to implementing technology in an effort to streamline its field service processes. The company is a longtime user of the ARRIS WorkAssure mobile workforce management solution for automated routing and job completion purposes. The company also provides its technicians with Panasonic Toughbook CF-18s and CF-19s as a means to receive and update customer data in the ARRIS WorkAssure system in real time. These mobile technologies sufficed when technicians had the luxury of sticking to their preassigned routes throughout the course of the day. However, in the cable business, customer schedules frequently change, emergencies arise, and dispatchers are forced to deploy technicians on the fly to fulfill customer requests. In these instances, Time Warner realized that it lacked the location information it needed to efficiently dispatch technicians to job sites.

"With the technologies we had at the time, we could only estimate a technician's location based upon the address of the last service call they completed in the ARRIS WorkAssure system or if they called in with their location following a job," says Doug Bender, workforce management supervisor for Time Warner Cable of Central Texas. "With only this rough location data to go on, our dispatchers would often send technicians out of their way — even past technicians closer to the destination — to respond to a customer request."

This wasted travel time had a negative impact on technician productivity. For example, Time Warner Cable of Central Texas assigns a series of points to certain tasks technicians are expected to complete throughout the day (e.g. a cable installation is worth 10 points, cable repair is worth 15 points, etc.). Each point is equal to 5 minutes of time and each technician is expected to fulfill a quota of 90 points per day (which equates to a 7.5 hour workday). The long transit times technicians were incurring regularly prevented them from hitting their quotas. Furthermore, driving all over town took a physical toll on technicians, causing them to feel overworked.

Time Warner Cable of Central Texas knew it needed to find a way to dispatch technicians more effectively to increase productivity, decrease technician stress levels, and enhance customer service. The company evaluated four GPS solutions in 2004 in an effort to find a technology application that would help the company accomplish these goals. In the end, the company selected Wireless Matrix' FleetOutlook solution because of the solution's reporting capabilities (see sidebar below) and the fact that the solution was designed to be embedded in the vehicle, rather than mounted in a vehicle or embedded in a mobile computing device or cell phone.

"Many mobile or mounted GPS devices are easy for employees to fool," says Bender. "In other words, an employee can interfere with the GPS signal by placing an aluminum can near the antenna or simply disable the GPS signal by turning the unit off. I liked the fact that the Wireless Matrix solution was hard-wired into the vehicle because it makes it more difficult for the technicians to influence the location information our dispatchers receive."
Time Warner Cable of Central Texas implemented the Wireless Matrix solution in its Austin division in late 2004 and in its Waco and Killeen branches in 2006. In all instances, field technicians dropped off their vehicles at the company's Austin headquarters on a specified evening and left the vehicles there overnight. While there, a Wireless Matrix representative installed the GPS hardware (i.e. a wireless data communications device with GPS functionality) on each vehicle, and the solution was ready to go when the technician picked up their vehicle the next day. Performing the hardware implementation in this manner ensured that no productive time was lost.

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The Wireless Matrix GPS solution is transparent to the technicians themselves — the hardware embedded in their vehicles simply transmits a signal that indicates their location. This information is displayed on a Web-based mapping software interface that Time Warner supervisors access and use to make dispatching decisions. Wireless Matrix representatives provided on-site classroom training to Time Warner supervisors and showed them how to leverage the software and its reporting capabilities for the company's purposes.

User adoption of the new GPS solution went fairly smoothly, but like most technology deployments that involve employee tracking, Time Warner Cable of Central Texas had to overcome some 'Big Brother' objections. "We addressed Big Brother concerns by emphasizing that one of the main reasons this technology was being implemented was to help reduce their workload," says Bender. "Furthermore, I pointed out that corporate knowledge of their precise locations was actually beneficial to them from a safety perspective, given the dangerous nature of the job they perform."

Bender knows firsthand how insufficient location information can be a safety liability to cable technicians working on telephone poles, rooftops, and other dangerous locations. Prior to the company's adoption of GPS technology, one of Bender's coworkers was seriously injured while in the field. This coworker managed to radio in to the office to inform his supervisors that he wouldn't be able to make it to his next job because he fell off a telephone pole. After that, the company lost radio contact with the field technician. Without GPS, Time Warner supervisors didn't know the field worker's precise location — they only knew his scheduled route and had to estimate his whereabouts based on the time of day. Bender and four other supervisors each selected a couple of the jobs on the technician's route and scattered to try and find their fallen comrade.

"I found the technician's van at the second job that I went to and there was blood in it, but no sign of him," says Bender. "By this time, it was 45 minutes after we received his initial call. I started talking to local residents and they told me that EMS [emergency medical services] had taken him to a local hospital. This is eventually where we found him."

This Time Warner employee ended up surviving the fall and making a full recovery, but it opened up the company's eyes to the importance of having insight into the precise location of its field workers. "God only knows what could have happened if he were to have fallen off a pole in a more remote area," adds Bender.

Bender commonly uses this example to thwart any Big Brother objections to the company's GPS investment, and the solution has already aided in protecting the safety of Time Warner employees. For instance, recently a Time Warner of Central Texas technician passed out from heat exhaustion by the side of a local residence. When the technician didn't show up for a scheduled call, the dispatch office tried to reach him by radio. When he didn't answer, the GPS solution provided supervisors with the exact location of his vehicle. A supervisor immediately visited that location to find the unconscious employee and got him the proper medical treatment.

In addition to the safety assurance the system provides, Time Warner's GPS solution has  been successful at fulfilling the company's productivity goals. With precise location information, Time Warner supervisors can now make the most informed and efficient decisions when dispatching technicians to handle service calls. The reduced travel times that have resulted have allowed Time Warner technicians to complete more jobs per day. In fact, most technicians now regularly hit their 90-point daily quotas. Furthermore, the shorter job routes have helped lessen technician stress levels and reduce fuel costs.

Additional features of the Wireless Matrix FleetOutlook solution have helped cut fuel costs even further. For example, FleetOutlook provides engine-idle time reports that indicated that Time Warner of Central Texas' technicians averaged 35% to 40% of engine-idle time per day in order to keep the air conditioning running. Since it gets extremely hot in Texas, particularly in the midst of summer, Time Warner didn't want to mandate a limit for technician engine-idle time. Instead, the company instituted incentives for the technicians with the lowest engine-idle times every month. As a result, the company's average engine-idle times dropped to an average of 10% to 12%.

"Our new GPS solution has allowed us to reduce companywide engine-idle times by more than 25%," says Bender. "With gasoline hitting $4 a gallon, this decrease in fuel consumption saves us tens of thousands of dollars each month."

Time Warner's GPS solution has exceeded the company's expectations, and the company regularly upgrades its GPS system to ensure it is maximizing the productivity and cost benefits the system can provide. For example, the company recently invested in Wireless Matrix' new Communicator 300 cellular data devices with embedded GPS capabilities for some of its newer technician vehicles. These devices provide 802.11 functionality, which will allow Time Warner to eliminate some overlapping cellular expenses. This benefit, combined with the others it has already received, prove that the measurable businesses advantages of GPS far outweigh the 'cool' status the technology has attained in the consumer market.