The Challenges Within the Telecom Sector | Zebra Blog

Study Finds that Telecommunications Companies, Other Service Providers Value Advanced Technologies but Also Consider Implementation a Challenge

Given how many people currently rely on voice, video and internet services to work, learn and socialize remotely, it is imperative that telcos prioritize technology investments that keep their remote workers productive.

Two field workers review information on a rugged tablet
by Kyp Walls
August 10, 2020

I don’t think that anyone would argue that 2020 has been a test of strength, agility, patience and technology.

When offices, schools and non-essential businesses began closing to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and billions of people around the world were ordered to stay home, life could have stopped completely. Yet, it didn’t. It just changed, thanks to technology.

We still connected with co-workers, loved ones, doctors and even personal trainers “face-to-face” – via video chat. We still shopped from many of our favorite retailers and ate at many of our favorite restaurants – thanks to online ordering/payment combined with home delivery and curbside pickup services. Our kids continued to learn from their teachers while we learned how to bake sourdough bread, start a vegetable garden and make face masks. And millions of us still signed onto our computers each morning to check email, access business systems and keep projects moving in a remote work setting.

Though our ability as humans to adapt has been impressive, what has been even more impressive has been the hard work put forth by the “always remote” telecommunications sector workers to keep our internet, voice and video services online despite the sudden spike in network traffic. Without their efforts, efficiency and effectiveness, we wouldn’t have the internet bandwidth needed to be efficient and effective ourselves. It would have also been much harder to sustain personal “social” connections from a distance and likely impossible to keep boredom at bay (for kids and adults alike) without a near-constant video stream.

So, on behalf of Zebra, I want to say THANK YOU to all of the front-line workers in the telecommunications sector who have continued to work around the clock to ensure we are able to make the connections we need to continue to safely work, learn, shop and socialize in the middle of the pandemic.

On that note, I want to talk a bit more about what it truly takes to sustain this level of operational continuity in the telecom sector and, thus, in our lives.

How the Technology Tools Used by Telecom Workers on the Ground Directly Impact the Performance of Wireless and Cloud-Based Technology Tools Used by Everyone Else Around the World

It takes thousands of skilled and dedicated telecom technicians and engineers to install, maintain and upgrade the millions of miles of wired networks required to keep our wireless and cloud-based services online.

What many people may not realize is that smartphones, tablets and other handheld mobile computers typically connect wirelessly to cellular towers that are wired together and then to switches, exchanges and finally data centers. A wireless “trip” to a satellite and back would introduce too much delay in the data, voice or video transmission, as you can see when a TV anchor is talking with an overseas correspondent. So, the need has never been greater to empower technicians with technologies that keep them safely out in the world, building and maintaining our telecom connections, so that we can stay home.

Fortunately, as Zebra’s recent “Future of Field Operations” study found, the shift to rugged mobile computing, printing and scanning devices with more capabilities and functions is happening, even accelerating, within the telecommunications sector and even among other service providers. That’s because field service organizations do not act on a whim, especially when it comes to major operational changes. They use data as the basis for decisions ranging from the types of services they should offer to the infrastructure designs they should implement and even the types of technology tools they should give their workforce so that field teams can stay connected to one another and critical business systems while maintaining the equipment that enables others to do the same. And, right now, the data makes a strong case for implementing easy-to-deploy and even easier-to-use enterprise-grade mobility solutions that give telecom and technical service providers the real-time, actionable intelligence needed to improve response times and better manage labor and inventory resources.

According to 400 decision-makers who responded to Zebra’s survey, these are the big three challenges that telecom companies and other technical service provider are currently working to overcome:

The top 3 challenges facing service providers in the field.

In a way, that kind of says it all. Better response times help everybody – definitely customers, but also the organization. The quicker an equipment or infrastructure problem in the field is addressed, the sooner that asset can support revenue. Plus, increasing the speed of dispatch, diagnostics and issue resolution gets the technician (or team) to the next call sooner, which means more calls can be handled per day. But response time improvements don’t happen because you or your workers try harder. They happen because predictive analytics and automated dispatch get the trucks rolling sooner, geographic information systems (GIS) data directs technicians to the right asset immediately upon arrival at their destination and machine learning combined with virtual reality (VR) or virtual collaboration tools increase the first time fix rate (FTFR).

Of course, budget is always an issue, and the term “budget” can mean capital expenses, operating expenses or both. Often money in one bucket cannot be used for the other, which tends to constrain IT professionals’ options when building a technology toolset for field workers. This sometimes leads to less-than-optimum decisions, such as leasing equipment (operating budget) because there aren’t sufficient funds to purchase equipment (capital budget). So, IT needs to work as partners with their finance department so that overall minimum expenditures are evaluated in total when trying to maximize technology budgets. After all, investing in the right technology tools is the key to maximizing labor resources (which are almost always far more costly than their tools), improving inventory utilization and ensuring proper equipment installation and preventative maintenance actions are being taken to extend the life of equipment and eliminate unnecessary truck rolls to fix or replace failing equipment. (More on that in a minute.)

I realize the irony in my recommendation considering that study respondents indicated that implementing and adapting to new technologies is a top issue. However, in my view, this only really becomes an issue if new tools – whether they are mobile devices, GIS apps, augmented reality (AR) apps or wearable technologies – work well. Some service organizations think their workers are resistant to all new technology. On the contrary, workers are opposed to poorly executed technology but, in fact, embrace better tools. When talking with workers who complain about a mobile device or app, what companies often realize is that field technicians actually appreciate the benefits that mobility solutions can bring to their jobs and simply need those tools to be better implemented. Their reported issues – the device fails to stay connected in remote areas, can’t be seen in the sun, knocks me off the VPN when I swap batteries, etc. – are typically fixable by deploying the right technology tools for the job. To be honest, I’ve never heard one worker say “we should go back to the old way.” Yet, for some reason, many telcos and service providers are hesitant to adopt new technologies, even if they are just better-suited versions of the same technologies already used today – such as tablets, scanners or handheld mobile computers – and even if it’s riskier not to do so. That’s interesting to me.

New Isn’t Always Better…Or Is It?

When I first read through the results of our “Future of Field Operations” study, I was reminded of the comments sometimes heard in field service organizations that believe that new features aren’t really needed. They claim that field-based workers are able to get their jobs done with the mobile devices and feature sets they currently use and that continuous innovation isn’t necessary to keeping customers happy and their workers productive. So, why spend the time engineering a better keyboard, optimizing the touch screen, finding a better antenna placement or perfecting the functional form?

(Zebra does not feel this way by any means as Chief Technology Officer, Tom Bianculli, discussed in detail in this recent podcast. We are always looking for ways to improve our technology solutions so that front-line workers can do their jobs better, faster and more efficiently. Hear what he had to say on this subject.)

In a way, this is like the current controversy about advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) now available in cars and the further system advances expected to become more mainstream over the next few years – things like Lane Departure Warning, Active Blind Spot Detection, Automatic Emergency Stopping and more.

Simply put, the vast majority of drivers think they are better than average drivers (which is, of course, statistically impossible) and therefore not in need of these ADAS tools. Of course, some drivers are better than others, but all drivers make mistakes. Many times, those mistakes don’t result in accidents thanks to the actions of another attentive driver or even sheer luck. However, we shouldn’t be relying on others (or luck) to mitigate accidents. If the technology is available to make us better drivers, we should leverage it – just as telcos should leverage new and better technology as it becomes available to mitigate service and infrastructure issues. Whether or not we expect new technologies to help, they do help and are in fact often needed, especially when it comes to mobile technology for field workers.

Though often unstated in marketing and sales materials, the benefits of most new technology features are their ability to deliver a higher level of abstraction, which is a fancy way to say that they free up people to solve higher level problems, which they continue to be (still) better at than machines.

Consider the first computer programmers, who had to “print” by writing specific lines of code to move the printer carriage to the far left, space to the intended indent and then send each character to the printer while counting so it knew when to issue a carriage return. Today, it is written PRINT (“Text to print”), and the operating system’s print driver does all the rest. That “new capability” increased the level of abstraction, enabling programmers to focus on more important, higher level things. Similarly, the introduction of computer- aided dispatch (CAD) meant that field service technicians no longer had to look at maps or enter an address into a navigation system to know how to get to the customer or asset location. The CAD system can efficiently direct them to their next call, which empowers them to arrive sooner and with more information about the work order so that they can immediately get on with the business of “diagnosis and repair”. Could service providers have stuck with more traditional (i.e. manual) dispatch and routing systems to save money or avoid “complicating” the workflow? Sure. But, in the end, that simple action of driving to the right place at the right time and with the right tools would have remained much more complicated than it needed to be. New and better technology tools addressed pain points that maybe weren’t that evident at the time. The reward of embracing change – embracing new technology – far outweighed the risk of perceived adaptation challenges.

I think another reason why I was surprised to see new technology implementations as a top challenge by telcos is because they are among the many field service companies that have experienced first-hand just how effective in-field mobility tools can be in driving greater connectivity, productivity and efficiency.

Perhaps that’s why they are hesitant to modernize their technology solutions? Because the currently-deployed devices are working so well?

On one hand, their current systems do work. On the other, what’s sufficient today will be obsolete eventually. So, continuous modernization/enhancements – or at least forward-thinking investments – are warranted.

Remember, the processes used to manage service providers’ field-based operations technically “worked” as needed back when most service calls were recorded on paper and most dispatches where done by frequent calls between the technician and the in-office dispatcher. However, the truth is that systems work better today thanks to commonly-deployed technology that uses CAD apps, online work tickets, digitalized service records and both automated and field-based payment options.

Therefore, I challenge service providers to embrace technology modernization as enabling versus disruptive. When weighing the risks versus rewards of implementing new technologies, ask yourself two questions: 

1. What types of new/better technology tools could potentially improve the productivity of my workers today, assuming they weren’t too complicated to deploy or use?

2. What types of technology-delivered workflow capabilities might prove beneficial tomorrow, assuming I had the resources to implement them and, again, they weren’t too complicated to integrate or use?

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Kyp Walls
Kyp Walls has been involved in dozens of new product and service initiatives throughout his 30+ year career in technology and consumer goods. He has also directed product and marketing teams for many industry-changing products.