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30.000 SBC "Techs Of The Future"

Trade Butt Packs For Laptops

It was the largest single deployment of new field-force technology in the history of the telephone industry.

Over 30,000 laptop computers running built-from-scratch, homegrown applications.

A full arsenal of interchangeable computer modules designed to put-to-pasture hundreds of thousands of butt sets, handheld line testers and analog system-analysis devices.

 Over 30,000 computers with full support for wireless job updates, service-records access, and report filing.

Over 30,000 computers empowering an equal number of techs with on-demand electronic system maps instead of difficult to locate and read paper charts, in-car printers in place of unwieldy paper forms, and the ability to automatically update and close files from anywhere at any time.

Born five years ago and christened “Technician of the Future (TOF),” SBC’s bold initiative ushered in a new age of increased efficiency, improved cost-effectiveness, and heightened customer-service levels.

Never having bothered to learn to walk, TOF has been hyper-running since the first specially modified Panasonic CF-27 ruggedized laptops and Tempo VIP digital modems – a combination dubbed Intelligent Field Devices in SBC-speak – left the garages and hit the road. Now, thanks to a major hardware upgrade incorporating the latest in portable computer and wireless connectivity technology, the TOF program has quit running and broken into an all-out gallop.

“When you go from a dumb terminal where you have to find a dial tone to conduct a transaction, to having wireless technology in your truck where all you have to do is stop and make a wireless call to retrieve your work, or close out a job, or pull up customer information, or pull up outside plant records, or print a cable map, you get incredible efficiencies,” says Ray Walters, SBC associate director of desktop services and manager of the current Technician of the Future deployment.

Walters notes that implementation of Cingular EDGE GPRS technology in the company’s new Toughbooks has resulted in gains of up to 250 percent in wireless transmission speeds.

“We moved from circuit-switch analog access to packet-switched GPRS EDGE, which is significantly faster and a lot less expensive,” he says. “When we were running analog we were at 4.5 kilobits per second; with EDGE we're at 70-120kbps.

“Not only is the wireless performance significantly improved, but we went from a Pentium II 300Mhz machine to a Centrino-based unit with a 1.4GHz Pentum M CPU, 512Mhz  RAM, and an 40GB hard drive. The processing speed is eons ahead of what we had.

“The technicians in the field today, the ones I've talked to and seen in deployment …  they couldn't wait to get these machines ... they didn't believe it when we told them that they were going to get something that’s fully ruggedized and performs just as well as a high-end computer you can you pick up off the shelf at Best Buy. You would think you were talking to a kid with his first bicycle.”

Improvements in TOF’s wireless implementation have rendered dial tones almost irrelevant when it comes to diagnosing and repairing circuit problems at customer locations.

“Technicians don’t have to get in their trucks and run for dial tone anymore,” Walters says. “Previously, we had situations where technicians would get stuck at customer locations without a dial tone because the problem was somewhere back toward the central office instead of right at the premises. Now the technician can sit there, dial in wirelessly, and test and isolate that problem.

“The combined effect of these major increases in wireless capability and computer processing speed has put this program light years ahead of where it was at its inception. Thanks to integrated vehicle tracking, we now know where our technicians are at all times and our backend centers are using that technology to push jobs out at will. We don’t have to rely on the jobs that were routed to technicians at the beginning of a shift. We can pull a job back and issue a new one at any time.

“Once he’s got a repair ticket, a technician can pull up the complete service history for that location. If it’s a repeat job, the report will show him what was done during previous visits so he doesn’t have to waste time going through the same steps. Closing out the job is also done dynamically.  When a technician finishes a work order, he or she dials in wirelessly – right from the jobsite in most cases – enters any billing information in the central office server, updates the ticket, and picks up a new assignment.”

According to Walters and other executives at SBC, the original mission plan for the Technician of the Future project stressed improving customer service, satisfaction, and retention levels in what was, five years ago and still is today, a fiercely competitive market – to understate reality by about 1,000 percent.

“Ultimately the goal (of TOF) is to be able to help customers more quickly,” an SBC spokesperson said at the time of the program’s launch. “By making it easier for our technicians to do their jobs (TOF will) make them more efficient and enable us to reach out and help more customers every day.”

Speaking five years later, Walters compares “the number of jobs a day a technician did in 2000 against what they're doing today” and says that the program has more than lived up to the goals set in 2000.

“The bottom line is that TOF has made us more responsive to customer demand since day one, and this upgrade has taken us to a whole new level of service,” Walters says.

Getting SBC the connectivity they wanted the way they wanted it, however, required some major customization of the new laptops.

“There are two ways to implement EDGE technology,” explains Panasonic Computer Solutions Company Telco/Utility director Mike McMahon. “One is by using a PC card with its own antenna, and the other is by installing a wireless module in the guts of the computer.

“We typically provide our customers with internal EDGE modules, but SBC wanted PC cards. What they didn’t want was a snaggable, breakable external antenna sticking out of the card slot. What we did was re-design the PC cards to work with an integrated antenna and engineer a custom wiring harness for the computers.

“The benefit to SBC goes beyond getting rid of the weakest link in any card modem, the twisting-in-the-wind antenna. SBC also gets an extra module bay that can be used for other wireless or GPS functions.

“So far it’s worked flawlessly. I don’t think we’ve had any returns at all.”

According to McMahon, SBC also isn’t returning – or retiring – a substantial number of the half-decade-old components on their current laptops.   

“SBC abhors what they call ‘stranded investment,’” McMahon says. “They don’t want to buy technology and have to throw everything out and start all over again three or four years later.

“One of the big things they asked for when they purchased the 27-based systems from us five years ago was that we ‘future-proof’ their investment as much as possible. The new MIL-STD-810F-tested boxes they’re deploying now fit right in their existing vehicle dock/printer stations, and their line-testing and other specialized modules plug right into the 29’s multimedia bay.

“They’re also taking the floppy and CD-DVD drives out of their old Toughbooks and using them in the new ones. Altogether, the future proofing and inherent durability of our products is saving SBC tens of millions of dollars.”

SBC’s Walters confirms that hardware durability has been – and still is – a major factor in the Technician of the Future program’s success.

“You know, some people think that ruggedization is not important,” he says. “There is no way that we could have gone with a non-rugged device and not have to change out everything every six months … Non-rugged devices just don't last.”

McMahon’s boss, PCSC President Rance Poehler, isn’t complaining about SBC’s decision to replace their old Toughbooks with bare-bones new ones. In fact, he says, he’s not even slightly perturbed that the CF-27s, originally projected by SBC to be phased out in three years, have remained in service for five.

“Of course, we’re very proud that our products routinely outlast those of our competitors,” Poehler says. “But we’re even prouder when they exceed the expectations of our customers. That’s one of the things we really live for, one of the things that really revs us up … when one of our major customers is still getting solid, 24/7 service out of machines that have long passed their 100 percent depreciation dates on the books.”

Somewhat wryly, Poehler suggests that the new CF-29 laptops will outlast even their Methuselah-like predecessors.

“This design is the industry’s first totally sealed, MilSpec 810F Centrino-compliant notebook,” he says. “It incorporates a totally new, very revolutionary double-cross-rib, magnesium-alloy case design to increase the rigidity while cutting weight. Compared to SBC’s fleet of CF-27s, the new models have an extra dispense gasket for better water resistance, improved ability to withstand drop shocks, enhanced antenna durability, an advanced anti-twist LCD-mounting system, stronger case hinges and a more rugged keyboard.

“The reality is that we would much rather our products exceed their projected service lives even if it does cost us some short-term orders. Eventually that customer is going to have to replace their machines, no matter how well they’re still working, with computers based on faster chips and system architecture, updated operating systems, and improved connectivity protocols.

“When that times comes we like to think that a customer who’s gotten five years out of a computer they expected to last only three, will find choosing a manufacturer for their next-generation machines a no-brainer. “

Not so, says Ray Walters.

“I won’t say rolling to the CF-29 was a no-brainer for us, not at all,” he comments. “We did not make that decision in a vacuum; we went through a lot of pains before making it. We ran field trials of probably six or seven different devices and the decision wasn’t all that easy.

“Eventually, we felt the best solution for SBC was to stay with Panasonic because of their overall product quality and service. They've been very good partners with us the last five years.”

One thing SBC didn’t have to face this time around was a learning curve bordering on culture shock.

“Five years ago we moved to a technology that put many of our technicians into an arena that they weren't familiar with,” Walters recalls. “We got to the point where we were teaching our technicians basic computer operations. A lot of them, at that time, didn't even have computers in their homes. It was a complete learning process. We not only educated our technicians about our programs; we provided steps for them to turn that computer knowledge over to their families and use it in their personal lives.

“We do conduct a little refresher training when they get their new CF-29s,” he added. “Just some basics about upgrades to our Tech of the Future craft applications and a few of the differences between the old Windows NT boxes and the new XP Professional boxes, but it’s nothing like last time. Now we give them a short time to familiarize themselves with the new machines, and they’re gone.

 “Back in 2000, we had folks with 20-25 years service who had never sat down in front of a computer. It was a big transition, but we made believers out of them.”

According to Bruce Keenan, CEO of ProSys Information Systems, a Georgia-based advanced-technology integrator which handled the nationwide CF-29 system, implementation for SBC, the major “retraining” required by the deployment was at his end.

“There was a big learning curve in terms of connectivity,” Keenan says.  “We had to link with each individual user’s cell phone, program the computer for the area code they're going to be in, and setup the billing information and billing cycle.”

Keenan notes that the 22,000-unit deployment required close collaboration with Cingular to maintain SBC’s stringent just-in-time delivery schedules.

“Two weeks before each unit was scheduled to go into service, Cingular sent us a SIM card for that unit,” he says. “A week before the deployment, they would assign the individual units to end users and we would activate the SIM card through a card reader and install it in the computer.

“Basically, we took all the units, did the configuration, activated the wireless, burned in the regional software and sent them to the SBC depot for final testing and configuration before they were issued to the field technicians.

“We didn’t have to do any truck installs this time around because SBC was using the mounts and printers that were already in the trucks.

One interesting side effect of the change from analog wireless to state-of-the-art cellular technology is a quantum improvement in SBC’s ability to track and maintain computer accountability records for each technician.

“We’re not just pulling 20 boxes off the shelf, labeling the outside of the units and sending them away,” Keenan says.  “We’re also tracking which laptop belongs to each individual. We know that from the very beginning, from before the unit leaves here. We know who’s getting each package, the depot knows who’s getting each unit and they’ll be able to track that for the entire service life of the computer.”

In addition to the Tempo VIP sidekick modules issued with the original units, various members of SBC’s field force now have access to a suite of other digital hardware modules – among them DSL line testers, Wheatstone Bridge-technology resistive fault testers, and dual-trace time-delay reflectometers – that integrate directly with their computers via the unit’s multimedia bay.

 “The VIP is mainly for POTS technicians,” Walters explains. “Those were our original digital testers and they are basically used in place of five or six analog meters on regular installation and repair work. The newer modules are more sophisticated instruments that the construction and cable folks use to measure cable distances, signal loss, different types of cable arrangements and other things like that.”

As its name implies, Technician of the Future began life as a productivity and efficiency tool for what might be described as the “blue-collar” division of SBC’s field force. Entering its second generation, however, it has been expanded to the management ranks with the addition of interactive software for measuring technicians’ work, training technicians for new tasks, and generating a long laundry list of reports and documents in numerous formats.

“It’s still growing,” Walters says of TOF. “It’s still being improved every day.”

Given SBC’s latest massive investment in keeping TOF right at the curling edge of the telco technology wave, we can think of no better way to end this article than to quote from our ??????? issue.

The Technician of the Future initiative, we wrote, is “about much more than simply putting laptops in technicians’ hands. By definition, the project is a dynamic, ongoing process, not a static system destined to eventually morph into ‘tech of the present’ and ‘tech of the past’ status.”

True five years ago and, based on all the available evidence, just as true – if not more so – today.

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Formerly the editor of Portable Computing magazine, Elliot Borin is a frequent contributor to periodicals focused on field force computing and communications issues. For more information about SBC, visit:  www.sbc.com.  For more information about Panasonic, visit: www.toughbooks.com




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