Magazine Article | July 1, 2000

The Power Of A Wireless Solution

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company replaced its paper-based system with a mobile computing solution that improved customer service and decreased response time by 10%. The $4.4 billion company is now exploring wireless Internet applications that include managing technical manuals online.

Integrated Solutions, July 2000

Warm homes in the winter and cool homes in the summer. Throw in color televisions and microwave ovens, and you practically have what most Americans consider to be part of their birthright. Illinois may very well be the "Land of Lincoln," but students are not honoring this distinction by solving math problems on the back of coal shovels by the light of fire. Instead, they are surfing the Web, typing reports on PCs, and then cramming in an hour of video games before dozing off to the sound of their favorite CDs.

All Americans, including Midwesterners, have come a long way since the pioneer days. Gas and electric energy are no longer luxuries; they are necessities. And, the providers of these necessities are no longer faceless monopolies with a long list of company objectives that include profit at the top and customer care somewhere near the bottom. The energy industry of today has been transformed. The fight for customer retention and acquisition among competing companies is fierce. If your company doesn't provide quality service, customers can take their business elsewhere. While energy companies may generate power, the power of choice now resides with individual customers.

MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company (Sioux City, IA) was quick to recognize this shift in the market. The keys to retaining its nearly 1.3 million U.S. customers (650,000 electric customers and 625,000 natural gas customers) include competitive pricing and quality service. Obviously, the most important aspect of service is an uninterrupted flow of energy to its customer base, which resides in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Another large part of service, however, is responsiveness to customers' requests or problems. To address this area, the $4.4 billion company turned to a mobile computing solution. The wireless system eliminated the company's paper-based processes, allowed for reallocation of staff, and centralized its customer support center. The company is also exploring GPSs (global positioning systems) and Web-based content management solutions to further empower its field technicians.

Microfiche And Paper Prove Cumbersome
All companies have realized increases in efficiency and productivity by extending their enterprises. MidAmerican, however, wanted to extend its enterprise beyond the walls of company offices to its service people in the field. Running cable throughout buildings is one thing, but supporting 350 field technicians traveling throughout the Midwest called for a wireless solution. That solution would replace the paper-based system in place at MidAmerican service centers.

Each day, hundreds of customer orders flood the MidAmerican customer call center in the Quad Cities. Ranging from connecting service to rereading meters, customer orders were manually entered into the company's system. The orders were printed each morning at the service centers and distributed to service people. "Each morning, our service people would take paper orders out of their pigeon holes and head out to their first jobs," recalls Denise Moody, senior systems analyst at MidAmerican. "After a job was completed, the service person filled out the paperwork on-site and moved on to the next order." The paper really piled up at the end of the day when the service people turned in completed orders to the service centers. Clerical personnel quickly sorted through the paperwork and manually entered the details in MidAmerican's system. But, that wasn't the end of the paper.

A year's worth of order documentation was stored in file cabinets at each service center. The paper was then packed into boxes and stored on-site for another two years. Once the documentation was three years old, it was imaged and stored on microfiche for up to seven years. "There are certain records regarding gas leaks, for instance, that we must keep for many years. It's part of the regulation process," explains Moody.

Mobile Computing Solution Cuts Response Time
As part of the company's migration to a mobile computing solution, MidAmerican established two dispatch centers: the natural gas dispatch center is in Sioux City, and the electric dispatch center is in Des Moines, IA. A computer-aided dispatch system from Mobile Data Solutions, Inc. (Richmond, British Columbia) allows one dispatcher to handle orders for up to 35 service people. This cut the number of dispatchers by 25%.

As the orders pour in, the dispatchers assign daily work schedules directly to pen-based mobile computers located inside the service vehicles. The computers from Intermec Technologies (Everett, WA) include models 6600, 6620, and 6640. These models are designed to withstand both the hot summers and cold winters of the Midwest. For the service people who take their vehicles home each night, the mobile computers eliminate daily trips to the service center to pick up orders. Service people now start each day with a list of orders already loaded on their mobile computers. Some orders are designated to be completed at a specific time, and others can be completed at the discretion of each service person. Once the work is complete, service people fill in the electronic order forms on the screens of the mobile computers. That information is relayed to the dispatch center in real time.

"The data is transmitted through a T1 line to our EDACS (enhanced digital access communications system) data gateway. From the gateway, the data is sent through an RF (radio frequency) network to the mobile computer of each vehicle. When service people contact a dispatch center, the process works in reverse," says Moody. "Most importantly, the information is transmitted in real time. We know where service people are working and if they are en route to a particular job. We can provide this information to customers and offer them better service."

While most calls to MidAmerican's dispatch centers are routine, potential gas leaks jump to the front of the list. The safety of the customer requires that these orders take priority, and that service people respond immediately. In these cases, the mobile computing system has also improved MidAmerican's performance. "Response to emergency calls is critical. Mobile computing has allowed us to cut our response time by at least 10%. We now average a response time of 26 minutes," says Moody.

What's Next? Managing Manuals Online And Wireless Internet Connections
The new mobile computing system has met the expectations of MidAmerican, but the company feels it can extend its capabilities even further. For instance, integrating a GPS would allow the company to track the exact location of every service vehicle. Also, the company would like to extend the capabilities of its current utilities-mapping application to all its vehicles. This would allow all service people to know the locations of natural gas and electric lines buried underground.

Of course, applications for the Internet are changing all businesses, and MidAmerican believes it can capitalize on this technology, as well. Currently, service people carry standards manuals in their vehicles that dictate, for instance, how deep a gas line must be buried and how far from a building it must be located. Making those manuals available online would be a great benefit for MidAmerican. "Service people would no longer have to carry those manuals in their vehicles," states Moody. "By putting the manuals online, there would be only one place to maintain it. We could constantly update the manuals for service people who could use their mobile computers to access the information they need. An Internet connection like that would also allow us to send e-mails to service people in the field, which would further expedite service for us."

People appreciate the luxuries they have. After a while, however, those luxuries are taken for granted. The ultimate sign of this is when you flick the light switch or press the power button on your television remote and nothing happens. At that point, you realize how dependent you have become on the services that companies like MidAmerican offer. Obviously, the goal of MidAmerican is to provide uninterrupted service to its customers. With 1.3 million U.S. customers, however, small problems are sure to arise. The company's mobile computing system allows MidAmerican to respond to problems more quickly, and in some cases, before customers even know problems exist.

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