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Carrier WiFi

Toughbooks Big in Boonies

With 160,000 electrical customers scattered across 10,000 square miles and parts of four states, Empire District Electric Company provides power to some of the most remote areas of the continental United States. Headquartered in Joplin, Mo., the investor-owned utility covers southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas along with parts of Kansas and Oklahoma. A few years ago the senior managers at Empire came to a startling realization: They had no idea where all their facilities were.

"We had no map," says Rick Wallace, Empire's manager of mapping and outage management systems (OMS). "We had lots of job printouts and a lot of local knowledge and that was it. The word came down from senior management that a lot of that local knowledge will be retiring in the next few years, so we needed to develop a replacement."

Empire launched a complete field inventory that would cover some 90,000 transformers, 150,000 poles, and all the switches, meters, and fuses that went along with them. Collecting that information manually would take years. So Wallace was charged with the task of installing a wireless network that could cover Empire's vast territory along with the mobile devices to collect the data.

He settled on a satellite network from Wireless Matrix Corp. connecting Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) ruggedized Toughbook CF18 notebook computers with local-area WiFi networks that link the machines to the trucks in which they ride. Using this system to build a GPS database of all Empire facilities, the field inventory took 13 months to complete.

"We wanted the user to be able to take the laptop out of the truck and go to the meter location, whether it's in a backyard or in the brush somewhere," explains Wallace. "They can capture the GPS data, then go to the transformer that meter connects to and capture that GPS data, feed it into the system, and build our electric model."

Thanks to a swiveling screen adapted from Panasonic camera technology, the machines used by Empire function either as folding, keyboard-equipped laptops or as tablet PCs. Panasonic, says Rick Elliott, the company's national sales manager for utilities, now controls around 70 percent of the market for ruggedized notebook computers for utilities.

Wallace won't say how much Empire has invested in the system, but Elliott says that base Toughbook CF18 models sell for less than $3,000 apiece.

Empire now has 90 Toughbooks in the field. Every time a new meter gets installed, the lineman feeds the GPS data into the network, which is connected to a server in the company's Joplin headquarters.

The system is also used to track the location of every truck in the field. Overcoming the natural wariness of the linemen, who feared a Big Brother-style monitoring system, the wireless network has dramatically reduced response time to outages while improving safety for the drivers themselves.

"Unfortunately, we had a couple of serious vehicle accidents after the system was implemented," Wallace recalls, "and we were able to pinpoint exactly where those trucks were. It meant a lot that the first ones to show up after the wrecks were our own people -- it's reassuring for people if they're out in a storm, at night, or whatever that people know where I'm at and that I can be found."

Line managers for Empire say outage response times have been cut nearly in half. "Our personnel is out there so much sooner and they're getting the lights back on so much quicker," says Wallace. "It's the customer who benefits the most."

Next, Empire will implement an automated work-order system over the Toughbooks to replace the current paper documents. That's where the bottom-line benefits will come in. Wallace estimates that if the wireless system allows each service truck to average one more order per day, the system will pay for itself in three years.

And, like any good IT pro, Wallace knows who his ultimate constituency is: "Our senior management has just been totally impressed -- they had no idea that the system could do what it does."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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