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English water company patches leaks in wireless system

Wessex Water is one of three companies honored for ingenuity at the recent Networking Decisions conference. Wessex received an award for its deployment of a new wireless messaging system for remote workers.

At TechTarget's recent Networking Decisions conference, Wessex Water was honored with the Wireless Revolutionary Award for its use of a wireless messaging system for remote workers.

Wessex Water of Bath, England, provides water to 1.2 million customers and sewage services to 2.5 million customers in southwest England. The mobile communications system the company had in place for its field workers was outdated and expensive.

Wireless award winner
TechTarget VP Paul Gillin presents the Wireless Revolutionary Award to Sue Cordon of Wessex Water.

Wessex Water was ready for something new.

The company had been using a proprietary radio system for voice communications. The system also allowed some limited data communications, but the data system only worked one way -- from the remote worker to the home office -- and it only allowed for the transmission of numbers, not letters. So only limited kinds of information could be transmitted.

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The system had a special feature that allowed workers to notify the home office when they were working alone in the field. This feature was important, said Sue Cordon, a project manager with Wessex Water, because the European Union now requires companies to have a means of monitoring the safety of lone workers in the field. The problem with this system was that there was no way for a lone worker to confirm that their message had been received by the dispatcher.

Wessex Water also had to maintain its own infrastructure for this system, and the costs had simply grown prohibitive, Cordon said.

The company began shopping around for new systems. Cordon wanted a system that would be more economical and which could allow workers to input and access a broader range of information than they could with their existing radio system. Most important, she needed a system that enabled her company to comply with the law.

Cordon finally settled on a system available through the Croyden, England-based wireless carrier, Vodafone Group PLC. At the core of Vodafone's system is a router from a Dublin, Ireland-based mobile products company, Xiam Ltd. Colm Healy, CEO of Xiam, said the company's product is designed to help route mobile communication from field workers to internal databases and other systems.

Xiam's system uses short messaging service (SMS) to communicate. SMS, or text messaging, is an alphanumeric message of 160 characters or less. It is popular in Europe as an alternate means of communicating over mobile phones. According to the Dublin, Ireland-based GSM Association, in the U.K. alone, 70 billion SMS messages are sent every month. Healy said most companies are interested in communicating via SMS because it is so widely used, it takes little training and just about every phone on the market can send and receive such messages.

Healy's router directs messages sent from a phone to the correct internal database and allows messages to also be sent back to the phone. Since there is no session created -- these are just calls moving back and forth -- there are no greater security concerns with this system than there are with a cell phone call.

Cordon said the new system has much broader functionality than the old one. With this new system, workers send a message when they arrive at the site. They receive a confirmation that the message has been received. They can also specify how long they plan to be on a job site. If a lone worker is on a site past their expected time or beyond three hours, the system will send out a message asking them to respond. If there is no response, someone can be sent out to check on the employee.

Staff in the office can also send SMS messages to anyone in the field from their desktop computers. Field workers that check effluent quality can now send the results of those tests into the main office as soon as they are done. If there is a problem, it can be addressed much more quickly, Cordon said.

Because text messaging is so popular in the U.K., training has not been a problem. "If they have problems understanding how to text message, they have children at home that will be more than happy to talk to them about it," Cordon said. And because Wessex Water no longer has to support its own infrastructure, this approach has been very cost effective, she said.

The only drawback to using the cell network in this way is the unreliability of coverage. Though the U.K. has much better cell coverage than the United States, these field workers are often in remote areas where there simply is no signal. To address this, Wessex Water increased its coverage area by going with two wireless providers.

And Cordon said that in a worst-case scenario, it can rely on the resourcefulness of its remote workers. Because they work in the same areas day in and day out, they know where they can go to get a message through, she said.

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