One step closer
The utilities sector currently is fighting for a smarter grid, demanding its share of broadband spectrum and testing a multitude of new tablet designs and operating systems. For months, it has vocalized its intent to take advantage of new 4G networks, and recently petitioned the FCC for a share of the 700 MHz spectrum that potentially will be reallocated to public safety’s proposed nationwide broadband network. Meanwhile, the utilities sector has started to recognize its overreliance on proprietary hardware-based technologies and has begun to imagine a new world powered by software applications running on broadband IP networks.
Applications that harness the strength of the new networks are ready for deployment now. They possess the power to eliminate paper trails, facilitate better data management in real time, and rid the sector of the latency and blocked communications arteries that for far too long have created business inefficiencies.
In other words, as the utilities sector works its way toward the smart grid, it can achieve a smarter grid now by upgrading its communication systems and structures to achieve more advanced, fully interoperable communications. An upgrade of this nature does not, and should not, have anything to do with hardware acquisitions. Rather, software can be deployed as a quick and cost-effective means to achieve more advanced communications. And, it is, in fact, this scalable, flexible foundation that will let utilities migrate to the smart grid.
Historically, conventional dispatch operations consisted of hardware consoles that were installed in fixed locations and that had limited capabilities. Two-way radios, used to receive and facilitate dispatch requests, likewise provided very specific functionality. They became the standard tool for operations because nothing else provided such simple and immediate communications. Furthermore, no other devices stood up to the challenging environments of this mobile workforce. No one has asked much more of the paradigm — until now.
The utilities sector — like transportation and other markets with a large mobile work force that is reliant upon secure, real-time communications — is starting to ask why. It has given a lot of thought to what new Android-, iOS- or Microsoft-powered tablets and smartphones running on faster data networks can do for the sector, its customers and the bottom line. This powerful combination of new mobile tools will disrupt the communications status quo across verticals where workers traditionally have relied on single-function, two-way radios and other dated communications devices and systems.
But what has the utilities sector licking its chops are the new applications designed for mobile energy audits, better interoperability, data collection and real-time customer interfacing. Software applications running over broadband IP networks will drive the most functionality from these devices, while also helping to solve long-standing problems and generating smarter, more cost-effective solutions to age-old problems.
This software, coupled with sleek new portable devices, provides solutions that are flexible, mobile and lightweight, and which can track the rich data that is the backbone of the utilities sector, all while integrating with video and voice applications. This will make jobs easier to perform, and will make performance more accurate and timely.
It is all about 4G and the potential, power and punch of applications that will change the mobile workforce and the businesses that support them. 4G finally is fueling the potential for mission-critical voice, data and video applications that run on next-generation tablet and smartphone platforms. This will open new channels for managing and analyzing data that will have a huge positive impact on business decisions and customer interactions. There is a wide variety of applications like this that exist now.
Software solutions not only are affordable and scalable, they also connect and extend critical voice, video and data communications by removing device, system and platform barriers. Such solutions require no new hardware and support limitless clients, including tablets, smartphones, two-way radios, desktop IP phones and PCs.
Such software allows a utility’s communications network to span multiple facilities spread over a wide geographic area because it easily manages any complex web of public and private networks, including the mobile workers out in the field. For example, an office-based utility warehouse manager could talk directly to a radio-equipped field worker from his PC using a simple Web browser application. The same warehouse manager might then use his browser application to participate in push-to-talk communications with a group of fieldworkers who are using smartphones. Simply put, software brings together diverse communications technologies of any kind into a single, standardized, interoperable communications network.
More cost-effective dispatch control and operations is another benefit of software-based solutions. For example, utilities can reduce the number of hardware consoles or replace them entirely via a client application installed on a PC. This would help the utility to move away from expensive proprietary networks and instead utilize 2G, 3G and 4G networks. A utility then could dispatch to thousands of people from a single PC, effectively consolidating multiple systems into one console and dramatically improving workflow and customer service.
Because software lets utilities leverage existing devices and infrastructures, including radio systems, utilities are able to reduce ongoing operating and maintenance costs. In addition, they may repurpose existing equipment and even connect previously incompatible equipment, such as traditional trunked radios, to its communications network. This type of software deployment allows utilities to achieve immediate performance improvements while preparing for the smart-grid movement.
Software solutions give utilities the agility to go beyond proprietary systems and processes, i.e., interoperability and system compatibility issues are no longer a concern. For example, companies may address spectrum squeeze by introducing its older trunked radio systems. Without software, this cost-effective and easy answer would not exist. Unlike proprietary systems, software has no hardware preference. And, embracing software as a means to grow communications networks and realize interoperability is smarter communications; it is the first step in the right direction toward a smart grid.
The utilities sector is poised for major change in the way its mobile workers collaborate and engage with customers, even before smart-grid strategies are realized. The key to this revolution is software that optimizes existing assets and smart technologies. This in turn will redefine workflows and improve business operations.
The near future is 4G and what lies beyond is a world where utilities run various mission-critical applications on a mix of public and private 4G/LTE networks. It is software that will make this possible — IP-based dispatch and interoperability platforms that deliver data, video and mission-critical voice capabilities. These technologies actually are changing the utilities landscape now, improving the manner in which an entire work force operates, and bringing utilities one step closer to a real smart grid.
James Mustarde is marketing director for Twisted Pair Solutions, which develops mobile communications solutions for the enterprise, public safety and military sectors. Contact him at [email protected].