In 1996, BellSouth started investigating the possibility of deploying GPS technology to its field force to increase employee safety and productivity and improve customer satisfaction. With appropriate wireless, satellite or cellular networks, organizations can dispatch vehicles to jobs based on where they are at that time as opposed to where they're estimated to be. BellSouth recently completed two GPS pilots using its BellSouth Wireless Data (BSWD) wireless network, which is packetized data that provides real-time capabilities, to receive and transport GPS data.
Becky Swissler, FFA associate editor, spoke to Rick Hamrick, BellSouth project manager of the GPS initiative, about the company's recent pilots, as well as its future plans with GPS tracking.
FFA: How exactly does GPS technology work?
Rick Hamrick: GPS is basically a U.S. government-provided array of satellites that are sending signals to the earth on a daily basis. In order to collect this data from the satellites, you have to have a device that receives these satellite signals. From there you have to have a means or transmission medium to transport that data to a server location or another destination to overlay that data onto some type of GIS mapping. You're actually talking about two transmission mediums, both the receipt of the signal and the distribution of the signal to another location.
FFA: And what kind of means does BellSouth use in its transmissions?
RH: We use BSWD, BellSouth Wireless Data, which is a wireless network. Other options are a cellular network or a satellite network to transport the data from the controller to a server location or processor.
FFA: How does a company decide which network to use?
RH: You look at business plans and determine which is most economical, which suits your needs. In order for the cellular network to be feasible from a real-time perspective; you'd have to pay for a cellular connection every time in the increments of minutes, so from a cellular solution you might want to consider packetizing the data and sending it in a batch environment at night and off hours. BSWD is a packetized data that is fairly reasonable, inexpensive and provides near real-time capabilities. Satellite that we've looked at is a little pricey, but it is a method of transporting data if you could get your costs down as far as the hardware that is associated with it.
FFA: What was your role in implementing the GPS pilots?
RH: Three years ago I was brought on as a manager to look at both the economical and technology pilot to see if there was any benefit that could be gained by GPS technology. One of the things our company's officers wanted was enhanced safety and security for the field technicians. From the word go, we've always looked for an opportunity to increase the technicians' safety, so if they're in harm's way they can activate an alert that would go into a monitoring center. I was brought on board to look at the technology and the feasibility of these pilots and develop a business plan to move forward in establishing a team of experts that would provide the development and design, including the safety functionality, of a solution that could be tested and expandable and could adapt to future technologies and enhancements.
FFA: When did BellSouth first decide to roll out GPS technology?
RH: In 1996 BellSouth's officers asked our solutions group to see if there were efficiencies that could be gained by putting GPS on its vehicles. From there we started and were approved to do a pilot in 1997. We used 55 units in the Atlanta area across four work groups. We tried to include several types of geography; we wanted to look at rural, suburban and urban applications to see if there were any differences. The coverage was successful, we found that all areas ruled at that time by cellular and BSWD had a presence that could cover all of our needs for the pilot area. As far as performance improvement, we found that there was significant improvement in technicians' daily routes just by providing them with a graphical map and tabular data for the previous day's activities.
FFA: Since that initial pilot, has GPS been rolled out to other areas?
RH: Since then we've had another pilot which was a technology pilot -we built our business plan on the fact that the efficiencies gained in the '97 pilot were successful, then we did a 100 unit technology pilot in Louisiana in the February/March 2000 time frame. It was deemed a success so we moved forward with that.
FFA: So what is the next step then for BellSouth and GPS?
RH: We're currently building 3 platforms, what we call our three-legged stool. We built a platform that has already been deployed which is a wireless laptop PC that has been given to all of our I&M (installation and maintenance) forces called TechAccess. We're currently building an integrated dispatch system (IDS), which is a dynamic dispatch that's going to dispatch the closest available technician to the job, and we're also building another platform of GPS. Our plans are that we will integrate these three applications into a total dispatch solution that will be marketable to other industries.
FFA: Do you have a time frame for when you think that will happen?
RH: TechAccess is already deployed and is complete, so we're halfway there. The time frame on IDS and GPS is that they will be complete by the year 2001. We will start GPS deployment in March 2001 with a pretty aggressive schedule of around 14,000 units in a 9-month period across a 9 state region (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee).
FFA: What were your initial feelings about the technology?
RH: I felt like in order to be successful we had to move toward a real-time capability; this capability affords us an opportunity to look at our technicians or the vehicles right now, as opposed to where they were yesterday, and integrate them into a dispatch solution. I had to build a frame of software with exception-type reporting, and build a system where technicians could verify and validate the accuracy of the vehicles' location. All of that would allow a monitoring system that would increase the performance and efficiency of our mobile workforce. My feeling at that time was that the technology was available and if we could include it into a real-time environment, then we would be successful without having to go to a passive environment. We wanted a more robust system and we wanted to go with real time because we saw the importance of it.
FFA: How did your employees respond to GPS?
RH: Well, at first it was called a lot of different names. Some of the things that we did-some of our success stories- were that we emphasized the safety awareness and discussed and trained on the alert functionality and how important it was. We also emphasized how we were going to reduce windshield time. As we were involved in our '97 pilot, some of the technicians were saying, "I'm dispatched an assignment and I pass somebody coming from where I'm headed and he's going to where I just came from." So we really heightened the awareness that our objective was to reduce some of the windshield time. We also emphasized the importance of, "If you have GPS on you, you're not going to do the things that are out of the norm that you might otherwise do." Knowing GPS is on them is going to keep them more en route and therefore save some of their jobs. We looked at it from different angles and it was received a little bit better after that.
One of the union issues that came out of it was disparative treatment. In other words, "If I've got it on me, then I want it on him over there." From a company standpoint, we had to back up and implement some fair and equitable decisions; we just blanketed it and said all of the technicians are getting it. It was hard for them to accept at first, but after they saw that our direction was both trying to integrate it into a dispatch strategy plus some of the safety issues, they seemed to be ok with it. And we've communicated with them--there's no hidden agenda. I've made every attempt to visit the technicians, to visit the supervisors, and during the pilots I made a personal commitment to be at the technicians vehicle the morning after installation to inform him what we were doing and what we were about.
FFA: What kind of training did the employees need?
RH: Training was twofold; there was the training upwards to train the officers of the company, and training downwards toward the management team and the technicians. I developed informational videos and training manuals as well as personal visits. Of course I can't visit 14,000 technicians over the next 9 or 10 months time period so the commitment I've made is that we would provide a personal video to have a formal introduction.
FFA: Do you have any concrete evidence in terms of improvement in field technicians' productivity?
RH: Yes. In '97 we baselined this core group (GPS group) and then put the monitoring devices on the vehicles and statistically validated their results. There was a considerable improvement of a little over six minutes per dispatch. So if you've got a technician with five assignments a day, then you realize approximately a 30-minute saving per day per technician and we factored that into our business plan.
FFA: What other benefits has BellSouth gained from GPS technology?
RH: BellSouth has recognized performance improvement through reduced windshield time. We're reducing the mileage and the maintenance on the fleet, and we're providing the alert functionality in case of emergencies. Customer satisfaction has increased because of our ability to gain approximately one more assignment, or 30 minutes a day, per technician.
FFA: What do you see in the future with GPS technology?
RH: We've built a system that's expandable, upgradeable; it has an in-vehicle control unit, which is a processor that's inside the vehicle that has logic. We have software and firmware that allows us to use over-the-air upgrade capabilities and our three-legged stool is going to offer us some future enhancements like best route or nearest route to next assignment, never lost functionality, driving directions--things like that that we feel are very important if we have crews that are not familiar with the territory they're in. They will have the capability via their laptop to give them driving directions to their next assignment from where they're closing out. We're also going into voice recognition to where we're going to try to keep our technicians more hands free and they will verbally ask the software (PC) how far am I from next destination, where is my next destination, and the PC will respond with the directions in voice.