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How Do You Automate 30,000 Field Techs?
America's leading telephone-access line provider is deploying approximately 30,000 wirelessly enabled rugged notebook computers in what is being called the largest project of its kind in history.
Posted May 1, 2001
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SBC, America's largest telephone-access line provider, is currently in the midst of deploying approximately 30,000 wirelessly enabled rugged notebook computers in what is being called the largest project of its kind in history.

The parent of such companies as Southwestern Bell, Pacific Bell and Ameritech, has dubbed its thousands of Panasonic Toughbook CF-27s Intelligent Field Devices, or IFDs. The IFD is the integral part of the company's $150 million Technician of the Future initiative, a huge program encompassing 17 different projects designed to make service techs more productive and customer-responsive.

"Considering the size and scope of this project, it has been
a pretty awesome undertaking for us
as well as all the
vendors," says Max Kleinman, a consultant with Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) who has been working with SBC on the project for about two years. Kleinman is the technical architect for Tech of the Future, responsible for the integration of the hardware and software components for all 17 projects. "It was a pretty incredible undertaking from the get-go."

Enhancing Customer Service

Faced with a competitive telecom market and the communication challenges inherent in a company spread literally from coast to coast, SBC needs to enhance customer service as it grows. "Ultimately, the goal is to improve the level of service we provide our customers and to effectively respond to their future needs," explains Carol Murphy, general manager of the Tech of the Future program.

"Obviously, we need to decrease our internal costs and be one of the premier service providers in the teleco industry," echoes Alan Davis, release director for the program. A 23-year veteran of SBC, Davis' responsibility is making sure all 17 projects are rolled out and deployed on schedule.
Customers demand on-time repair calls and expect techs to be armed with the information to quickly diagnose and fix any problem--the first time.

"One of the most important pieces of customer satisfaction is telling the customer we're going to be there in a timely manner and following up with that," Davis says. "Fixing the trouble the first time plays a big part in that."

Process Comes First

One of the keys to the success of the Tech of the Future project, according to those involved, is that the program has been process-oriented from the start. In early 1999, SBC formed a team consisting of representatives from each of its operating companies, including executives, responsible for finding ways to improve processes. The 40-member group spent about four months riding with technicians, interviewing managers and devising plans for a sea change. No part of the company was considered untouchable.

From an original list of about two dozen projects, the team narrowed the scope to 17 and began implementing them in early 2000. Eighteen different SBC-related groups were in on the project, from fleet management to leasing. With processes laid out, the entire Tech of the Future program quickly coalesced around the need for a piece of ground-breaking hardware.

Enter the IFD

After perusing a list of more than 50 pieces of hardware ranging from WAP-enabled phones to Windows CE handhelds and running selected devices through field trials, SBC zeroed in on Panasonic's Toughbook ruggedized notebook computer. An important factor in the selection process was Panasonic's seemingly paradoxical ability to both build a custom device to meet SBC exacting specs and to manufacture and deploy a huge quantity of them.

"We control every stage from product design to product manufacturing," says Rance Poehler, Panasonic's vice president of sales. "This allows us to take requirements from customers like SBC and react very quickly to their needs."

The IFD is essentially a Panasonic Toughbook CF-27 with such extras as a line-testing and diagnostic tool made by Tempo called the VIP Sidekick and an integrated Sierra Wireless modem. The Toughbook also boasts a 12.1-inch, active-matrix DayBrite ARX (anti-reflective) touchscreen. The VIP Sidekick features standard line clips on one end and a proprietary serial port connector on the other end. It mounts in the Toughbook's hot-swappable multimedia bay; the testing software can be accessed via the computer's touchscreen, reducing the confusion factor for end users.

"We wanted to make the instrument portion of this as friendly to the techs and the world they live in as possible," says Paul Dewinter, a Tempo product manager. "Rather than create anything fancy, we designed an on-screen replica of the Sidekick's dial with all the tests designed around it in the same positions as the handheld instrument." The Sidekick and its Virtual Imaging Package modules test for induced noise and leakage and also feature trace and loss tones, a caller ID function test, a digital open meter and a resistance/distance calculator. Test results can be stored in a database for later review. The IFD also includes an internal 56K analog modem for landline communications and for testing modem lines.

SBC deluged Panasonic with 250 distinct functional requirements for the IFD. Panasonic delivered "just about all of them," according to Davis. "Frankly, there was not a tremendous amount of room for compromise. The list of requirements was not a wish list of 'gee, this would be great' features; it was a hard look at the environment we were going to be in and the expectations of the field test device. The list was pretty non-negotiable."

The IFD is designed to withstand extreme punishment. The company hired one of the largest independent testing facilities in the world to perform environmental tests on the Toughbook and, according to Davis, "obviously, it came through with flying colors."

According to Tempo's Dewinter, the device faced the elements and simply shrugged. "Rain, sleet, snow--we've had the Toughbook down in holes in the ground and we've had it sitting on piles of dirt," he notes. "The touchscreen is superb; even when it's grimy it's a tremendous tool for touching and dragging."

SBC's techs also needed wireless access to enterprise data, requiring Panasonic to integrate Sierra Wireless' SBP 320 modem into the Toughbook. Running on SBC's Cingular wireless network (formerly BellSouth Wireless Data), the techs are so reliant on wireless access that it's now their first option; dial-up is a distant second. "One of our key drivers is the ability for the technicians to get access to their legacy systems anywhere, anytime," says Davis.

Speeds and Feeds

One of the important benefits of the IFD is giving techs wireless access to dispatch information. Dispatching is just one of the functions of SBC's Global Craft Access System (GCAS), a solution running on the IFDs. The Tech of the Future program has enabled SBC to begin standardizing the entire enterprise on a singular GCAS. To help resolve recent service-oriented issues at Ameritech, one of SBC's operating companies, new techs will be able to more quickly transition to the company's dispatching system and take advantage of a case-based reasoning tool called TroublePro that guides even neophyte reps through testing processes and speeds up training.

The new GCAS system also leverages the IFD's touchscreen for interacting with the software and adds features such as drop-down menus to "turn a cryptic character-based system into a much more friendly system," comments Kleinman. "In terms of bringing new techs up to speed it should be much quicker to learn, and it adds increased functionality."

Techs also use the new IFD-based software for handling trouble tickets and accessing online mapping tools to get them quickly from one job to another. All of it is streamlined to run over SBC's Cingular wireless network (and other networks as geography demands) at data-transfer rates of more than 19.2 Kbps.

Training and Support

The Tech of the Future team has grown to about 150 people, including a dedicated number of trainers and help desk staffers. The group developed and piloted a new training regimen that now includes four hours of classroom training per tech.

To handle ongoing support on the 17 Tech of the Future projects and 12 new pieces of software the techs must master, SBC created a new help desk for its Ameritech region and staffed an existing help desk in the Southwestern Bell region. "We actually took the information out of one of [Field Force Automation magazine's] earlier articles about the right ratio in terms of field users versus support folks," says Davis, explaining that SBC currently has one support rep for every 300 technicians. The number of help desk personnel scales depending on the program's rollout schedule.

To augment classroom training, each tech's IFD comes loaded with multimedia e-learning solutions installed on the hard drive that can be called upon as needed. Comprising three modules, the proprietary software is based on a "see it, do it, teach it" approach. The first module includes 10 simulated installation and repair jobs using video clips, still photography and sound.

The second module enables technicians and first-line field managers to review the simulated jobs. "Here they will see a video clip of a technician performing an installation and then it will radiate on certain objectives--productivity, quality, customer service," says Davis.

Finally, the third module focuses on process management and educates managers on how to perform quality reviews, conduct feedback interviews with technicians and other process-oriented tasks.

Business Benefit

SBC is in the midst of its Tech of the Future rollout, so the company has not measured empirical benefits. "We are assuming up front that we are going to obtain the savings that we projected in our business case. And certainly we get anecdotal information from the field that tells us we're making tremendous impact there," Davis notes. "In fact, I was in Michigan yesterday and a 30-year service tech came up to me and said, 'I didn't like this thing when you gave it to me and now you'd have to fight me to get it away from me.'"

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