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.