The OnComm Rocket mobile router transforms DC Water and Sewer Authority vehicles into efficient computing centers, according to DC WASA's Mujib Lodhi (left), Omer Siddiqui and Wayne Steeves.

Extending the Information Pipeline

Mobile wireless gateway connects DC Water and Sewer Authority work crews to the data they need in the trenches.

For years, mobile work crews for the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC WASA) have had to shuffle through papers -- water and sewer infrastructure maps, work orders and data sheets -- and rely on radio calls from dispatch to get the information they need to do their jobs.

Back at headquarters, managers struggled to track assets on the move and use them efficiently. But all that is changing with the agency's ongoing implementation of Utility Associates' OnComm Rocket mobile wireless gateway. The deployment is helping to streamline business processes in the field and at headquarters, says Omer Siddiqui, DC WASA's manager for systems and operations.

"Instead of the traditional command center model of people in the center contacting crews on two-way radios, we wanted a way to bring real-time information and data directly to the crews for effective field service management and decision support," says Siddiqui.

The authority provides water and sewer services for 500,000 customers in the District of Columbia and wastewater collection for 1.6 million customers in Maryland and Virginia.

Road Show

OnComm Rocket hardware mounted on the authority's service trucks provides a communications hub that acts as a router, tying Wi-Fi, radio, cellular, IP telephony and broadband technologies together through a single device, says Siddiqui. Critical data and applications, including an enterprise asset and work management system, are now available onboard service vehicles through the Rocket terminal, which also multicasts enterprise geographic information system data from the trucks.

Just as important as the information going out to mobile crews is the data coming back to DC WASA headquarters via the OnComm Rocket. In the command center, real-time information transmitted from the service trucks is crucial to asset management and route optimization efforts, as well as decision support for work-order management.

3,000: Number of miles of water and sewer pipes maintained by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority

Both aspects of the OnComm Rocket deployment are in line with the authority's mission. "Not only did we want to take the paper out of people's hands in the field and replace it with smart edge devices, we are changing the way we do business to provide better customer service and improve organizational efficiency," says CIO Mujib Lodhi.

When choosing a communications hub for its mobile crews, DC WASA had limited options, says Wayne Steeves, an advanced technologies consultant to the authority. "Other solutions were more expensive, and the Rocket allows more media and carrier independence than the others," Steeves says. "With the Rocket, there's no complexity for field personnel, which was important, and it enables WASA to have wide area wireless networking."

By early fall, DC WASA had implemented OnComm Rocket on 30 service trucks and has plans to extend the deployment to as many as 100 more vehicles in the near future, Steeves says.

The OnComm Rocket rollout has gone smoothly with the biggest challenge stemming from training drivers and field technicians to use the devices effectively, Steeves adds.

The cost of those first installations was $5,500 to $6,000 per vehicle, but it will come down to about $5,200 per vehicle as the implementation continues, says Steeves.

It's too early to measure the return on DC WASA's investment in OnComm Rocket, but Siddiqui expects to see savings through reductions in field paperwork, green computing initiatives and superior customer service made possible by the technology.

OnComm Rocket supports the agency's route optimization initiative to dispatch vehicles more efficiently from job to job, minimizing the need for trips to headquarters in between, according to Siddiqui. Route optimization could translate into as much as a 20 percent savings in the fuel DC WASA vehicles use as crews maintain the water and sewer infrastructure for the District of Columbia, he says.

Besides the importance of reducing DC WASA's carbon footprint, route optimization has a direct impact on customer service, says General Manager George Hawkins. "We want to get to the point that we can tell customers exactly when we will be at their doors."

The mobile wireless router also supports onboard vehicle diagnostics, which enhances DC WASA's fleet management program, says Steeves. "We're leveraging [OnComm Rocket] through the GIS and these other mechanisms to save on wear and tear, as well as fuel," he says.

The Payoff

The use of mobile communications gateways to provide information to mobile workers and capture data from remote sites is spreading among utilities and public safety organizations, says William Clark, a research vice president at Gartner. "Any industry where you've got high-value people out needing or capturing a lot of data is going to look at this technology," Clark says.

With the applications they deliver, devices such as the OnComm Rocket help address thorny challenges such as field service management and customer care enhancement, says Clark.

However, Clark cautions organizations against using mobile routing and switching technology for tactical, quick-fix projects that ignore their larger business process and infrastructure needs. But that approach never tempted DC WASA, Siddiqui reports.

"We looked at how the business could be conducted more efficiently using technology tools, we evaluated the skill sets of our workforce, and we took a look at our infrastructure and facilities before we made a choice," says Siddiqui. "Just throwing technology out doesn't necessarily solve the problem. We wanted to find the product that matched our exact needs."

Tracking Assets with RFID

When the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority deployed radio frequency identification (RFID) about five years ago, it became the first utility in the country to use the technology for asset management, says Omer Siddiqui, the authority's manager for systems and operations. RFID tags transmit information about the objects to which they are attached via short-range radio signals.

One new aspect of its RFID initiative involves the use of the OnComm Rocket mobile wireless gateway's optional RFID receiver. The device gathers data from tags on tools and inventory onboard service vehicles and transmits the data back to headquarters, where it's fed into an array of applications, says Wayne Steeves, a consultant to the authority.

"From an asset management perspective, it lets us dispatch and assign work to vehicles that have the tools to get the job done, as well as monitor the use of the tools and consumable inventory as it relates to specific work orders," Steeves says.

Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images
Dec 09 2009