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Question

What do your field workers do in rural areas and they have no connectivity?

The question is in regards to field workers in rural areas and their ability to connect on their tablets.  An Energy Company I work with has an issue where field workers in rural areas are not having a signal on their tablets yet they can pick up a signal on their cell phones (likely a different carrier).  How do other companies handle lack of connectivity on their tablets?  My company is playing around with the idea of having a dual carrier but they are curious what other companies are doing to resolve this issue?  Additionally, if they do go the dual carrier route, they expect their mobile vpn to be an issue if they need to switch over.  Has anyone tried to a dual carrier and if so, how did you resolve the impact to your mobile vpn?

Are there companies out there that have field workers that have found a way to have connectivity on their devices all or most of the time?  If so, what did you do?

Thank you.

Answers

Hi Heather,

A common solution to this business problem is offline-capable mobile apps. The general pattern is to load the user's device initially with software and data while connected. Then during times of no or low signal the user works with offline data and edits are cached on the device. During brief times of connectivity, the mobile app syncs with the enterprise and only incremental updates or "deltas" are exchanged.

This is a fundamental capability of a mobile workforce management system such as Click Mobile, or a mobile GIS product for the utility workforce like Schneider Electric's ArcFM Mobile.

Hope this helps!

Jon

 

Robert Lilley's picture
Robert Lilley on Sep 12, 2019 10:21 am GMT

I agree with Jon, that the mobile workforce needs to be able to continue to work with connected to the network or not. That is why GE's Mobile Enterprise Suite provide's Offline and Online capability with a bring-your-own-device policy, allowing users to synch up to the Smallworld GIS when back within cell or wifi range to re-connect securely to the Utility's network.

Dealing with intermittent, or even a complete absence of, connectivity in rural areas has been an ongoing challenge. I’ll list a few of the ways that we have gone about addressing this issue below. However, there has been no magic bullet, and we have found that it takes a combination of solutions to close the gap.

Use a mobile wi-fi hotspot on alternate carrier

One of the simplest ways that we have addressed this was issuing a mobile wi-fi hotspot on an alternate carrier. These hotspots were issued to only a small number of field workers who worked in specific areas where we knew the alternate carrier had better coverage than our primary carrier. This was convenient because it avoided the cost and complexity of dual carrier devices and allowed the tablets to simply switch from cellular data to wi-fi when necessary. Our mobile VPN was unaffected. The downside is that other field workers coming in to these areas, such as to provide support during storm response situations, would not have coverage. The cost of a separate device as well as another line of data service made system wide deployment of hotspots impractical.

Only deploy apps that can function disconnected

Given the ease of developing and deploying cloud-based systems using browser-based interfaces, there are an ever-increasing number of solutions on the market. However, many of these apps require a steady network connection to function properly. Under normal circumstances, lack of coverage in rural areas may create inconveniences. But during weather events, outages of communications equipment and cellular towers could create large gaps in connectivity at a time when utilities need it the most! For our most important work processes, we have focused on selecting and deploying only mobile apps that have the ability to work in both connected and disconnected modes. That may mean a higher price tag due to the increased cost of developing native apps for specific platforms. And. data plan usage as well as storage requirements for mobile devices will be higher due to the amount of data that ends up stored on the device. However, the real value is in having a robust app that keeps working when the field worker loses coverage.

Work with your carriers

Having a good working relationship with our carriers is an important part of our overall connectivity strategy. In doing so, they understand our needs better and are often willing to work to close coverage gaps when it is feasible for them to do so. Most importantly, they become valuable allies during storm restoration efforts. They may provide us with communication system outage information that helps us plan for our own response efforts, share damage assessment information, or set up COWs near our staging areas.  And it benefits them because we have a better understanding of their priorities in restoring power to their communications facilities.

In summary, there are always going to be scenarios where cellular coverage is lacking. Having an alternate carrier (using a hotspot or dual sims, etc) will help with but not eliminate the issue. Having apps that will continue to function disconnected will keep your field workers working in the absence of coverage. And, lastly, having a good working relationship with your carriers can help reduce coverage gaps and improve your ability to respond after storm events.

Hi Heather!

Being offline is a regular and frustrating experience for mobile field workers in utilities and Telcos around the globe.

Using mobility solutions that rely solely on “the IoT” or “the cloud” will disappoint.  Being caught out without offline capability in emergency situations is a very high risk activity, in particular for utility network restoration workers.

 ''Self-healing BitTorrent synchronisation'' is an another option. This approach is of particular advantage over slow communication lines with remote depots in a large utility network infrastructure.  These depots may have a handful or two of mobile devices that greatly benefit from local WiFi peer-to-peer data distribution.

Please refer below link to know more how self-healing BitTorrent synchronisation works.

https://www.instructables.com/id/Using-BitTorrent-Sync-to-Synchronize-Your-Files/

Hope this helps!

-- Rahul

Hi Heather,

Good questions. I can't answer your VPN switching question but can assist with the way other industry participants have attempted to tackle this. 

Lack of connectivity as others have mentioned should be handled by any good mobile application in 2019. Offline data storage and a host of other features for data integrity should be considered when selecting a vendor. Also incorporated should be the smarts around what we know as "continuous retries", so the battery isn't un-necessarily drained looking for coverage by polling.

The other way we have seen some success, is clients who have successfully and unsuccessfully used their vehicles to bridge this gap here in Australia. The vehicle fit outs are not cheap but cater for up to 3 carriers and satellite. Leveraging Wi-Fi has also been incorporated, particularly for large file uploads in areas of low coverage.

Happy to answer any more questions as needed and hope this helps.

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