Magazine Article | July 13, 2007

Secure Wireless Connections Streamline Field Service

Source: Field Technologies Magazine
Integrated Solutions, March 2007

JEA is one of the largest municipal utilities in the United States, providing electricity, water, and sewer services to more than 750,000 accounts in northeast Florida. In the utility's ongoing effort to improve customer service and reliability, it recently focused on optimizing wireless communications for its mobile field force. The task was no small feat, since no single wireless communication network covered the entire 841 square miles of JEA's service region.

When problems arise, JEA's field workers are the first responders for the utility. They handle breaks in water and sewage mains, fix meters, respond to power outages, and turn service on and off. Even when it's not hurricane season, their days are tightly scheduled. Communicating wirelessly makes sense for these first responders, but field workers reported that they were losing valuable time whenever they were forced to switch to a new network. Each time a mobile tech's wireless connection dropped, it took 20 to 30 minutes to log back into the utility's system. In a fast-paced environment where minutes matter, this is an unacceptable loss of productivity. JEA wanted to implement a new wireless communications system that met three criteria:
  • ensured that mobile workers are getting real-time information
  • secured the workers' communications
  • allowed workers to move from one network to another (e.g. from WWAN [wireless WAN] to a Wi-Fi hotspot) without losing their connections.

JEA had tried some IPSec (a set of protocols developed to support the secure exchange of packets at the IP [internet protocol] layer) and SSL (secure sockets layer) VPN (virtual private network) solutions, but the performance was not what JEA had hoped for, since these technologies were designed with wired, not wireless, connections in mind. A more specialized solution was needed, so, following an RFP process and testing, JEA selected the Mobility XE mobile VPN from NetMotion Wireless. The mobile VPN worked with all of the applications to which JEA field workers needed reliable and secure access, including dispatch, CRM (customer relationship management) tools, e-mail, and GIS (geographic information systems). In the initial deployment of Mobility XE at JEA, 470 utility workers, construction crew leaders, engineers, and administrators are using the mobile VPN. The users no longer have to reauthenticate when a connection goes down and can rely on keeping the connection to their applications.