March 23, 2006



Posted: 11.01.05

Initiating the Technician of the Future

Communications giant rolls out 22,000 rugged laptops to enhance its field force.
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By Eric M. Zeman

When imagining what the Technician of the Future might look like, I envision something right out of a science-fiction movie, complete with all the hardware and blinking lights with which one could adorn the human form. Not only would they look just rad, but they would be über-mobile and incredibly productive, knocking down trouble tickets with the mere pushing of a few buttons before bolting off to the next job on a rocket pack. The reality for SBC ommunications is just a little bit different.

SBC Communications, a Fortune 50 company whose subsidiaries provide a full range of voice, data, networking, e-business, directory publishing and advertising, and related services to businesses, consumers and other telecommunications providers, has decided to enhance its Technician of the Future initiative, an innovative program that helps to maximize customer service by providing thousands of SBC network technicians with wireless PCs that provide instant access to critical customer service and diagnostic information from the field.

As part of its effort to enhance this program, SBC plans to deploy 22,000 new fully ruggedized Toughbook 29 notebook PCs from Panasonic. These new PCs will replace existing Panasonic devices that were initially deployed in 2000, providing increased processing speed and functionality for the field technician applications. The new devices will be connected via the Cingular Wireless EDGE service, which provides connection speeds up to 135 Kbps throughout the majority of Cingular’s nationwide footprint.

Technician of the Future aims to provide SBC technicians with virtually anytime, anywhere access to critical information such as dispatch orders, customer installation and repair order details, localized software-based network maps, diagnostics and telephone line testing capabilities, as well as comprehensive SBC product information. This capability has tremendously simplified and streamlined technicians’ ability to serve customers and complete administrative tasks via remote access.

“Our Technician of the Future program has led to substantial improvements in our ability to provide efficient and effective customer service and to maximize the productivity of our technicians in the field,” says Lloyd Kelley, VP of SBC network services. “Our deployment of new notebook computers will ensure that we are keeping the latest technology and tools in our technicians’ hands on a continual basis.”

Mike McMahon, director of field automation at Panasonic, notes, “Our relationship with SBC began five years ago and they, like many of our customers, have always challenged us to make products that are ‘future proof.’ We’ve delivered products to accommodate the needs of their mobile workforce. Our products are both backward compatible, so our customers protect their investments in peripherals, and innovative—always delivering the latest wireless technologies, for example. Additionally, by forming a positive long-term relationship, we are able to create cost efficiencies and add value to SBC.”

According to all parties involved, the rollout has gone extremely well. Panasonic is deploying approximately 1,200 units per week in the field as well as lighting up wireless radios on each one. This was accomplished by a tremendous amount of pre-deployment planning by SBC, Prosys (the VAR), and Panasonic. Once the agreement was finalized, a deployment schedule was created to accommodate SBC’s business needs, and, to date, well over 10,000 SBC techs now have the new Toughbook 29 installed in their work vehicle.

“The response by the field has been overwhelmingly positive since they already had experience using Toughbooks,” says McMahon. “This deployment included units with faster processing, quicker wireless connectivity, brighter LCD panels and much larger hard drives. They were looking forward to leveraging the new technology, which has advanced considerably since the initial deployment five years ago, in a form factor they’ve come to rely on.”

Additionally, there was minimal need for training due to SBC’s five years’ experience using PCs, and the look and feel of the new Toughbooks were almost identical to the previous versions. Panasonic basically delivered a host of technological innovations inside a form factor the techs were used to.

When it comes to support, SBC is well taken care of. “Panasonic offered a team of experts to assist SBC with all pre- and post-deployment capabilities,” says McMahon. “SBC had a lot of experience from the last deployment, and received a lot of input from the field before any units were deployed. A key goal for us was to ensure that the actual deployment did not impact the technicians’ productivity in the field, and we feel we’ve accomplished that.”

Of course, deploying 22,000 fully mobilized laptops isn’t easy, but Panasonic was able to do exactly that inside of eight months. Due to the scale of deployment, the majority of the Toughbooks were pre-configured and tested at the
factory in Japan and then drop-shipped directly to Prosys in Atlanta. Prosys applied images, lit up the EDGE modems, did some additional quality testing, kitted all the units and accessories, and then shipped them to each garage. Because of the dual quality checking at both the factory and at the VAR level, the dead-on-arrival units were miniscule.

McMahon is proud to report, “The beauty of the entire project is that there was no disruption to the technicians’ work day. The external antennas and wiring change-outs all were done at night and on weekends so the tech was never affected. The antenna change-out was done weeks before the
tech received the actual laptop. When the new Toughbooks arrived, they were simply placed into the existing docks.

“All in all, the technician had zero impact on his workflow. The benefit to the technician is that now he is using a much faster wireless network, which allows him to download jobs much faster, as well as the large maps now available. The larger hard drive allows him to store many more maps on his hard drive as well, and the brighter screen makes it easier to see the screen in direct sunlight. They also have the ability to make use of the wireless LAN (802.11) in each computer to assist SBC in ‘future proofing’ their investment in mobile workforce technology.”

SBC is quite happy that the deployment has gone so well, and it is satisfied it has maintained no disruption to the amount of jobs done per day by deploying new technology to the techs. Though no specific numbers were available, Panasonic focuses on maximizing ROI for SBC and all of its Toughbook customers. “Based on the length of our relationship and the extent of the most recent SBC deployment, we believe Toughbooks will enable SBC to continuously improve field productivity. Throughout our relationship, SBC has always valued introducing new products with the best technology to assist technicians in their day-to-day work, while extending value for technology already in place. Panasonic works closely with all its customers to maximize ROI and has established ongoing quarterly reviews to ensure we deliver products and
programs that can address the customer’s needs,” concludes McMahon.

Okay, so they may not look like Boba Fett, but SBC’s technicians of the future are ably equipped to serve their customers day in and day out.•
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