April 13, 2017 —
The network operation center (NOC) business needs to move data among the service provider, the NOC, the FAA, the FCC and the tower owner. Developing and implementing field service data system integration standards would improve the national telecommunications infrastructure, support airspace safety by closing out NOTAMs faster and reduce costs.
No one; all our operators are busy; please hold for the next available operator. So for the customer trying to locate information on recent site repairs using NOC records, the field service technician trying to close out a service call or the manager attempting to estimate service costs for multiple towers as a line item in next year’s budget, it feels like no one is there. Today’s network operation center (NOC) data systems for tower site management function for the NOC, but they offer marginal value to customers. The NOCs collect their monthly fee and, in the better examples, give internet access to a limited set of site information and a list of open NOTAMs or site issues. (A NOTAM is a Notice to Airmen, a notice filed with an aviation authority to alert aircraft pilots of potential hazards, such as communications tower obstruction light outages.)
Are NOCs necessary? Of course they are. NOCs are continuously manned to monitor and report situations ranging from the trivial to the critical at telecommunications structures. Yet, NOCs could achieve more efficiency, reduce costs and provide improved services through the use of standardized data management techniques.
The NOCs’ shortfalls cost everyone. In a typical field service cycle, the NOC senses a site problem and contacts the customer. The customer’s site representative evaluates the situation and contacts a repair vendor. The customer and the NOC wait for a service technician to call the NOC for an access ticket number, to request a quarterly light inspection or to submit NOTAM closeout information. During the repair cycle, the NOC usually does not learn which vendor the customer assigned to the open ticket. One can only hope the customer keeps track of that information. Sometimes, customers maintain regional open-ticket spreadsheets or track in a centralized purchase order system. Upon completing the site work, the technician calls the NOC to close out the NOTAM; the customer’s home office receives an invoice; and everyone is happy for a while.
Then, someone opens another NOTAM for the site, perhaps within a week. The problems begin. The customer asks the NOC, “What is wrong now?” The NOC, lacking a detailed problem description, cannot answer completely. The customer’s site representative asks the vendor to send a technician back to the site. Depending on the historical data the vendor keeps, the service technician may or may not have detailed records of the previous problem: What was worked on, what corrective action was taken and what replacement parts were installed. Upon arriving at the site, the technician evaluates the situation and determines that Tier One Beacon Two is not lit and needs repair. He repairs the light by installing new bulbs and calls the NOC to close the NOTAM. A couple of weeks later, the customer’s home office receives an invoice, pays for the service, and everyone is happy again.
So what is the problem? Suppose the issue was faulty bulbs, and Tier One Beacon Two was just repaired a second time within week. Because the customer doesn’t track or otherwise doesn’t have access to detailed repair records, it could be paying for a service that is covered under warranty. We can assume the technician has to document and communicate his work hours and the parts used to his home office. So, the data is recorded somewhere, somehow, by someone. Thus, the service provider stores the information most important for the customer, but it may or may not be available in detail or in electronic form.
Imagine being a regional communications manager, responsible for 500 towers across multiple states. You have the task of developing an expense and capital expenditure budget for the coming year, together with supporting documentation. In an effort to reduce mobilization costs, you have been using regional vendors for air conditioning, diesel generators, lawn maintenance, fence maintenance and obstruction lighting, and you cannot put your fingers on critical site management information. At best, you have to search through invoices and handwritten field service notes. You have to request reports from your vendors, search your emails or whatever information you have and piece together an audit trail of what happened during the past 12 months at sites spread across five states.
Better Data Management
The solution is to have a data management system that efficiently collects service information and provides access to the appropriate data to the customer, the NOC and the service technician. In today’s marketplace, the technician records his activity and parts consumed in some fashion. But how he records it, to whom he communicates it and what level of detail he provides remain as wide open as the Wild West. Reporting requirements for service technicians before the site visit and after repairs have been made vary from site to site. Some customers require notice 48 hours before site access. Some allow access at any time. Some customers require detailed repair information, and others only want to know that the NOTAM was closed. The NOC is in a prime position to manage, host and communicate a large portion of field activity information, but not all of it. Although it may be appropriate for the NOC to collect service notes and information about parts used and pass those details along to the site owner, details about field expenses (such as mileage, per diem, material and hotel costs) are proprietary to the service company.
Hardware vendors developed and run some of today’s NOCs with an underlying objective of keeping their feet in the door with the customer. They offer enhanced monitoring for sites equipped with the hardware they sell, and they offer adequate monitoring for sites with hardware from other vendors. As lighting systems age out, hardware vendors seek to replace them with their proprietary solutions. This marketing strategy appeals to lighting company management, but it doesn’t function for tower portfolio owners. The tower portfolio manager has a responsibility for hundreds of towers with various technologies (obstruction lighting, HVAC, etc.), manufacturers, models, monitors, multiple NOCs and service vendors. Many times, they don’t own the assets long enough for the systems to age out, and they usually find it less expensive to patch and sell than to upgrade and standardize.
This is where applying some technology and keeping an open mind will serve everyone well. The NOC needs to expand the data maintained for a site to include details such as the customer’s contact information for the person responsible for the site, unit to be serviced and the vendor assigned the job. The technician should be provided a modern digital tool — a phone app or laptop application that provides pre-site visit procedures and efficiently collects images, service activity descriptions, field expenses and parts used information. Service data should include specifically which unit was serviced and what components were replaced. The data, collected once, could then be filtered and formatted according to the end user’s requirements and transmitted where it’s needed. The NOC, the FAA and the FCC would receive NOTAM closeout information, and the technician’s home office could receive field data properly formatted for integration into applications such as QuickBooks. The customer could receive field service reports via email to a predetermined distribution list, formatted to the customer’s specification (XML, CSV or spreadsheet) and merged into its corporate data system.
The Key to Improvement
Data exchange standards are key to improving field services while reducing costs. Necessity is the mother of invention, and competition adds fuel to the fire. Having each NOC venture off and create its version of the perfect customer portal typifies the free enterprise system. Field service companies expect laptop and phone application developers to create the ultimate data collection program. Field data collection applications already exist, but interface with proprietary service tracking applications. Establishing an open data standard in a competitive software development market will yield low-cost, feature-rich data field service data collection applications. The NOC field service business model is screaming for a standardized format for data transmission to move the information among the parties involved.
Imagine a standard data package that encompasses photographs, site activity verbiage, employee hours, parts used, mileage records and field expense information collected and transmitted by the field technician. The application could help guide the field technician to complete the data collection to the level of detail required by the field technician’s home office and the specific customer. The process could be flexible and configurable to enable appropriate data to be transmitted from the technician directly to the home office, the NOC, the customer or any combination of them.
Let’s list the advantages of a standard data package.
1. By using one, flexible application to record all field service activity, the service companies benefit from reduced costs. The standard field activity data package, (FACTPACK), could be merged into the recipient’s data system. The process eliminates duplicate data entry and errors introduced while entering information communicated by phone or handwritten notes.
2. Data recipients benefit from not having to re-enter the data, resulting in a significant human resource cost reduction at the NOC, reducing end-user costs.
3. Faster data access benefits everyone — whether it results in faster service call dispatching, expedites NOTAM closeout, reduces the cycle time to create an invoice or expedites post-incident investigation for the FAA.
4. The entire industry benefits because inventory systems can be updated based on real-time use and parts availability improves. Having the right parts in the right place at the right time reduces maintenance costs by increasing the percentage of field problems that can be solved during the first site visit.
5. Customers benefit from improved service information flow. If a customer transfers site monitoring to a different NOC, there is a seamless transition, similar to changing cell phone carriers. You keep the same phone number; the data just gets routed through a different network, or in this case, to a different NOC.
6. Customers and management benefit from more transparent reporting. Regardless of the service provider, the customer receives standardized field activity reports in a text version or, optionally, a preferred data format (CSV, XML or spreadsheet).
7. NOC personnel, management, and owners benefit as they are enabled to more efficiently manage site problems and collect service data from multiple service providers for various equipment.
8. Tower owners reduce liability exposure during post incident investigation when accurate, verifiable and timely maintenance records can be produced.
Open, Not Proprietary Systems
The monitoring industry is at a unique stage of development. The NOC has the opportunity to increase market share by expanding services to market segments outside of its current niche. The benefits and potential for growth using an open system approach far outweigh the potential of growth by controlling a smaller market segment through proprietary solutions. Adherence to a data standard would be a selling feature of a NOC, in much the same way a manufacturer promotes its compliance with OSHA requirements and ISO standards.
Standard data formats form the backbone of large data systems. You probably pay your personal bills via online banking. How do you suppose your bank sends funds to the bank of your electric company or cell phone carrier? It communicates electronically using data standards. Why do we give our employer our bank account and routing number for direct deposit? The payroll company communicates with the banking system via data standards. How do large retailers send purchase orders to their suppliers? They transmit electronic orders via EDI – Electronic Data Interchange standards and require their suppliers to adhere to the standard. So why do we not communicate our service information using standards?
Maintenance of our telecommunications infrastructure, whether we are referring to cell towers, broadcast towers, satellite dishes, AC units, diesel generators, obstruction lighting, lawn maintenance, access road maintenance or site access security systems, consumes a significant amount of the expense budget. The amount is large enough to justify detailed management at the income-and-expense sheet level. If you do not have access to the detailed data, you cannot manage it.
We also can apply the value of data standards to the corporate balance sheet. The value associated with an asset can be substantiated when accurate service records are provided. It adds value to an automobile when an owner provides service records that prove proper maintenance and that document the cost of ownership. Taking the concept of a data standard a step further, the historical maintenance records could be transferred from NOC to NOC, or NOC to customer, and the integrity of the maintenance records would be maintained. If accurate service records are provided for all significant site equipment, then a more realistic purchase price can be determined if the tower were to be sold. This could help to avoid possible post-sale litigation and balance sheet losses.
The development of field service data system standards is an opportunity to improve the national telecommunications infrastructure by closing out NOTAMs faster while providing accurate post-accident obstruction lighting maintenance data and reducing costs. The FAA and the FCC should participate in developing a standard data interchange format; tower owners should encourage it; service providers should welcome it; and the NOCs and software development teams should race to implement it.
Rob Sobol is general manager at Hilights. Visit www.hilightsinc.com