Organizations with employees who work remotely in the field have frequently struggled to keep in contact with workers when operating in rural locations. It’s a phenomenon they have had to try and work with for many years, knowing that any break in communication can hinder employees from doing their jobs effectively, which can have a negative effect on overall productivity and safety.
One such organization is Roanoke Electric Cooperative (REC), a private electric utility cooperative based in North Carolina, U.S. REC was formed in the aftermath of President Franklin Roosevelt signing the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, which prompted the creation of rural electric cooperatives nationwide. The cooperative was chartered in September 1938, and REC energized its first 56 miles (90 km) of line for 317 member-owners in 1939.
Growth and Connectivity
Initially organized to provide light and power to farms, REC now has more than 2000 miles (3200 km) of line serving more than 14,500 member-owners across nine counties and provides safe, reliable and affordable electricity for a wide variety of industrial, recreational, educational, community and other interests. It’s one of the most progressive cooperatives today and has won many awards for technology innovation, strategy execution and member-owner engagement.
Curtis Wynn, REC president and CEO, continues to expand on the cooperative principles: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, concern for community, and ensuring its member-owners benefit from cutting-edge technology.
Under Wynn’s leadership, REC has continued to grow over the years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the reliance on its excellent line personnel to maintain the electric systems. Much of the area REC covers includes swampland and wooded terrain where many member-owners live in remote and rugged locations.
To do their jobs properly, REC line personnel must remain in the field and stay connected to the network to receive and service member-owner work orders. When a line worker loses connectivity, he or she either must call or travel back to the office, losing valuable time while the member-owner could be waiting for assistance. Depending on the area and conditions, each line worker could have up to 20 work orders issued every day, and in some places, there might not be any communication capabilities at all.
To go paperless, REC moved its processes for line personnel from paper to tablets 15 years ago, but the tablets tended to break easily. REC switched to laptops, but the line personnel often had to go into the office to sync with the network and that was a time-consuming process. REC needed a solution to provide a reliable, secure network connection for access to emails, work orders, mapping systems and GPS in remote locations.
At first, REC tried using wireless hot spots, but some of the areas were so rural that the USB hot spots offered only limited internet service, causing inadequate communication and lost service orders. Often the work order would never reach the line personnel, or data would be lost, causing them to call or return to the office, which became difficult because a few of our line personnel had to travel about an hour to get to the office.
A Possible Solution
While attending an IT conference in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, U.S., REC learned of Cradlepoint’s ruggedized and cloud-managed COR Series routing platforms and dual-modem docks for SD-WAN capabilities that could be deployed on line personnel’s truck fleet.
After further investigation, REC decided to test this solution to see if it could meet the cooperative’s needs in the most remote locations where member-owners lived. REC’s line personnel used it for 30 days with no issues or complaints. With Cradlepoint’s NetCloud platform, the cooperative could manage, update and monitor the network remotely with NetCloud manager. Line personnel could get emails and work orders without a glitch, and complete and return them without having to go into the office on a daily or weekly basis. In fact, they did 99% of their work remotely and electronically. For a company that relies on the connectivity of its field workers, this was an eye-opening statistic.
Following the success of the pilot, REC installed Cradlepoint’s COR Series routing platforms on its entire fleet to increase network availability so the line personnel could stay connected anytime and from anywhere. The compact, ruggedized and reliable networking solution is designed for in-vehicle networks and mission-critical connectivity.
Now REC has 28 systems installed across the cooperative’s fleet, spread across line personnel. REC also supplied line personnel with new Microsoft Surface Pro tablet computers so they can log into the network and access their email and service orders. If a member-owner has a complaint or question, line personnel can log into the billing software and research the details of the account. They also have the information available to advise on the account rather than refer the member-owner back to the office. This gives them much more scope and empowers them to address any issues the member-owner has on their own, which makes for a much happier member-owner.
For some trucks, REC also included dual-modem docks that use SD-WAN to intelligently and automatically steer traffic between carriers for increased availability, additional bandwidth and failover capability. If a signal gets weak, the system switches over to another carrier.
Cradlepoint’s SD-WAN capabilities enable line personnel to stay securely and constantly connected to the network, accessing online applications as if they were in the office. Reports can be recorded and saved from the vehicles to the office network and viewed by coworkers in the office instantly, saving time and money.
With fast and robust network connectivity, line personnel can provide rapid assistance for each member-owner’s electrical issues, which leads to better customer care. If a line worker is at a member-owner’s remote location and the line worker needs assistance from the office, he or she can just log into the system and get the proper help from wherever they are.
Reliable connectivity also makes it possible to provide GPS monitoring, helping to track vehicles and ensure the safety of line personnel when they are out in the field in remote locations. With the COR Series devices in place, REC plans to use the mapping system to be able to assign work orders to the line worker located closest to the member-owner, creating a more efficient work plan.
The REC line personnel have saved a significant amount of time because the Cradlepoint systems require minimal troubleshooting and there is little need to travel to the office for repairs. The cloud-managed solution can be deployed and managed with “zero-touch” configuration, all through a single pane of glass.
With this solution, line personnel stay securely connected to the network, have steady communication to the office and can process their scheduled work orders faster, thus streamlining operations. The COR Series platform is created for in-vehicle, mission-critical connectivity, even in the harshest environments. It is purpose-built to stand up against dust, water, humidity, vibration and severe temperatures.
Other REC employees also need to check on equipment in the field frequently. In 2018, REC is planning to purchase several other Cradlepoint routers that are small enough to fit in a suitcase. With the new smaller routers, employees can put them in their own vehicles and REC can rest assured they’ll stay connected. REC also will be able to track them for safety and efficiency purposes.
Innovation for the Future
The adoption of the COR Series is one example of the innovative thinking REC is applying to different aspects of the cooperative’s activities. REC is also building a cyber network for each of its 12 substations to bring internet broadband through wireless/fiber to member-owners to improve communities and bring smart grid technology to member-owners.
The latter service is being provided to homes and businesses by a subsidiary business, Roanoke Connect, via its $4 million high-speed internet fiber network. The aim is to empower member-owners to take ownership for their electricity and save on energy by using smart grid technology where possible.
REC recently launched an offer that includes a free smart WiFi Ecobee thermostat, a free hot water control device, discount internet pricing and free installation. To use these smart devices, strong internet connections are paramount, and the network offers a significant increase in residential internet performance. Currently, REC has 26 member-owners on the pilot program and it’s proving to be very successful. Results of this beta test indicate high levels of satisfaction for the current participants. Other member-owners are also excited to start taking advantage of these new technologies.
With the launch of Roanoke Connect, REC is continuing a pattern of innovation dedicated to providing services to rural America that began with President Roosevelt’s signature back in 1936. As well as delivering continual enhancements in electricity supply and service to member-owners, REC has extended that innovative thinking to the provision of broadband, the technology that is having as big an impact today as electricity did in the 20th century.♦
Robin Hoggard Harrell is manager of technical services for Roanoke Electric Cooperative, where she directs and coordinates the IT/technical services department, staff and contractors. She has more than 17 years of service with the cooperative. She serves on the member advisory committee for NCAEC and on the EMC Technology Conference Planning Committee. She holds an MS degree in instruction technology from East Carolina University and a BS degree in computer science from Elizabeth City State University.
Check out the April 2018 issue for more articles, news and commentary.