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Cutting Costs With Real-Time Mobile Data

All systems are Reddy.

Fortnightly Magazine - January 2006

events, the radio communications system employed by Pepco’s field workers tended to get overloaded, with waits of an hour or more for workers to get through the queue to job dispatchers. These backlogs were eliminated, and now the radio system can be used during emergencies for its intended purpose—safety-related calls—while the field workers’ mobile data terminals handle their work orders and scheduling.

Ranking the 100 IOUs in the FERC Form 1 database by means of numerous criteria, Pepco is in the top-performing decile for numerous benchmarks (such as miscellaneous distribution operations expense as a percent of distribution plant in service or distribution-operations expense, and total distribution operations expenses as a percent of distribution plant in service, as well as total distribution and customer-service -related salaries and wages benchmarked to total distribution plant in service) and Pepco is in the top-performing quartile for all other major related benchmarks ( e.g., benchmarking salary and wages to distribution plant separately for distribution operations, customer accounts and customer service expenses, and G&A). On the other side of the coin, survey work that revealed which other utilities were rather “behind the curve” in terms of implementation of mobile-data systems typically indicated bottom-decile, if not bottom quartile, performance for these self-same benchmarks.

But even for utilities that are relatively well along the path to mobile and real-time enablement, survey work indicates that the depth of implementation is typically at or below the 50 percent mark. In other words, there is a lot more mobile-enablement to be done even for the most “heavily” mobile enabled utilities to date. And the prospective increase in usage of mobile-data systems involves both an increase in range of functions ( e.g., deeper cost tracking and the addition of tablet PCs to enable engineering designers to mark up images in the field to improve design work) and depth (an increase in the number of field service vehicles equipped with mobile data terminals).

The “second-tier” benefits from greater integration of real-time mobile data may be even greater than the first-tier ones which many utilities are currently enjoying. Consider outage management systems. When a utility employs an outage management system, even the best and most well designed ones in use today, costs are not tracked. These systems simply were not designed to track costs because they are concerned with rapid identification of the source of outages and rapid dispatch of field workers to restore power. But if deeper integration between asset or work management functions and outage management can be accomplished via mobile data systems, it is reasonable to expect significant operational improvements.

Fundamentally, what we track gets improved upon. We can get a glimpse of the size of some of these costs in the miscellaneous and G&A categories. For each of the 100 IOUs studied, a mere 5 percent reduction is sufficient to fund a depth of integration previously beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. For example, what would rigorous analysis of the efficiency of crews in different operating districts of a utility reveal in terms of optimal work practices vis-à-vis the relative utilization of