Personal communications devices, instant access to data and a new generation of tools and equipment are making the lives, and jobs, of field technicians more productive and less complicated in the new era of sophisticated networks. At least, that's the idea.

The Tech Assistant, from Pangrac & Associates Development, allows field technicians to perform a variety of tasks via their handheld computers.

Designing and building networks with two-way, digital and interactive technologies is complicated enough. Now, another crucial element is being added to the mix–putting the right tools in the hands of the army of field technicians now required to install and maintain today's advanced networks.

A growing number of cable operators and multi-service providers are elevating the status of advanced field equipment to near-mission-critical levels and intensifying their search for fast, streamlined field communications systems that will allow accurate and timely installations and maintenance processes.

The pressing need for field technicians to be armed with a wealth of current data, including customer information, precise mapping and permit data, installation procedures and complex engineering manuals, is prompting a fundamental shift in how field personnel communicate with their central offices and colleagues in the field; in real time and real fast.

"The one thing that has proliferated in the past two years is personal communications devices. Today, instant communication is the number-one priority for field technicians," says Bill McKissock, president of broadband services for ViaSource Communications Inc., a leading outsource and consulting firm to the cable industry.

And rightfully so. With the cost of truck rolls and idle field time a major pain for companies in the midst of upgrading and rebuilding their systems, and with complex, sophisticated new technologies and software in abundance, a fluid communications system in the field is high on the wish list of just about every cable operator.

So high, in fact, that the challenge of re-tooling the traditional field technician with edgy communications equipment and tools is sprouting a new generation of field devices designed with instant access to data and communications in mind. And the need for speed is driving the demand for new field products, with the ultimate goal of cutting time and costs, while assuring network integrity.

"The level of outfitting the field technicians must be at the level the operators are used to. Fulfillment operators must have this new equipment as they move into two-way services. It's now beyond a simple cable video call for field techs, and two-way is driving these new requirements. The bar has been raised," McKissock says.

Communications devices and test equipment are the two most crucial components in a field technician's arsenal, technicians say, and products such as docking stations for field techs and a single device housing multiple functions such as communications, data retrieval, test equipment and more are high on their wish list.

Tech Assistant combines troubleshooting techniques with current test instrumentation information, as well as step-by-step procedures.

"A docking station in a field tech's truck would be very valuable and would save about 20 minutes a day in paperwork and 30 to 45 minutes in downtime, plus, we could increase the field technician's productivity, and in some areas we're limited in cell coverage, so it would help communications as well," says Dave Krook, director of field operations for AT&T Broadband.

Consolidating the myriad devices required for testing, communications, volt metering and other field functions is another priority for field technicians. Adds Krook: "Field techs have to carry multiple devices, and it's a real challenge to move from one device to the other. We'd love to see these combined into one unit."

As the bar for field technicians rises, it not only requires a shift in the tools they use, but also a mentality makeover as they learn how to use sophisticated new equipment. "We've found that with new technologies, it's hard for field techs to understand fiber, phones, digital cable, two-way boxes and the new complexities of headends and test equipment. It's very sophisticated and demanding," says Dave Pangrac, CEO of Pangrac & Associates Development Inc., an engineering consulting firm.

Those increasing demands are precisely what prompted Pangrac's group to design the Tech Assistant and Tech Trainer interactive software packages aimed specifically at field technicians.

The Tech Assistant, which began shipping in June, allows field technicians to perform a variety of tasks via their handheld computers. It incorporates troubleshooting techniques and combines them with current test instrumentation information, hardware specifications, network performance requirements and step-by-step procedures.

"It's a tool for the field and is all field-related and modeled to support field needs. It allows field technicians to do their jobs better, with more accuracy, so the network can be set up with lower tolerances, and that's very important in today's complex networks," Pangrac maintains.

Tech Assistant runs on a handheld computer and has enough memory to store up to 500 miles of system maps. An interactive formula is embedded in software that allows technicians to automatically calculate C/N specifications, return path loss and more. In addition, forward and return path troubleshooting guides assist the technician in repairs for both coax and optical networks, while a test instrument guide provides procedures for commonly used devices.

"There are lots of younger technicians who are helped by the Tech Assistant in how to measure common path distortion, etc. Most engineers know how to perform these types of functions, but they aren't in the field, so field technicians don't have a lot of support while in the field. They need a tool to do them, and MSOs know it," Pangrac adds.

The company is also developing a training tool. Tech Trainer, which is currently in its final stages of production, is a replica of a working cable plant.

"Training is the biggest issue. As a rule, you almost always have to train field technicians to solve the problems that arise in the field, and most of the time, they don't know how to set up things like test equipment or how systems are supposed to work," Pangrac says.

Tech Trainer, he explains, works much like a flight simulator. It's an interactive software package that gives broadband technicians a comprehensive way to hone their troubleshooting skills.

SpanPro Solutions' 
WebWorx Plant.

SpanPro Solutions' WebWorx Fiber.

The technician is presented with a randomly selected network problem and works his way through the trouble ticket in a virtual network that provides a realistic environment. It also allows repetitive practice and mentoring guidance as the technician works his way through the interactive training process.

"Every conceivable problem and situation that can occur in the field can be developed and presented as a simulation. The end result is that the technician achieves success in solving the problems and is exposed to new options," concludes Pangrac.

Options for field devices are expanding beyond the training component as well. SpanPro Solutions Inc., an Internet and customer software developer, is moving into the field technician's space with its WebWorx suite of coax, plant and fiber products.

WebWorx focuses on the management and field technician side and uses Web-based technology to support field functions. Its suite of Internet technology products, specifically its Fiber and Plant products, are designed to give field technicians a clear view of the network and ample data to perform myriad tasks.

"WebWorx allows you to manage resources better. For instance, field technicians can look at a specific area, and if they're a splicer, they can look at the current splicing sheet via the Internet and see the actual splicing points and current splicing sheets. It also allows for permitting with dates, procedures, drawings, permits for state highways, extensions of permits, all of which can be logistical nightmares and could literally shut down a project," says Dan Adams, programming and Web development for SpanPro.

The Web-based suite of products is sold as a subscription service, so no capital outlay is required, an important element of the WebWorx suite, Adams points out. "We saw some resistance to capital outlays upfront, so we bundled the services and offer two for $200 a month."

WebWorx is currently being trialed in three-month subscription packages at major service providers such as Time Warner, Charter, Adelphia and newcomer Wide Open West.

The call for advanced field communications devices and equipment is prompting companies such as ViaSource to pay greater attention to the needs of field technicians as well. Says McKissock: "Installation now requires lots more attention, and we're being asked to certify telephony and high-speed data services, so our field people have to have a higher level of training in high-speed data, laptop computers and telephony. It's presenting challenges to us, and we have to do it in a cost window."

At the end of the day, it's the field technicians who'll likely benefit the most from the increased attention being given to field operations and the new efficiencies required to cost effectively install and maintain today's complex networks.

Concludes Krook: "Each function in the field is very vital to the success of the business, and field technicians are shifting gears. But there's still lots of frustration in accessing information, and we're trying to create a paperless environment and simplify the field technician's day."

With the advent of Web-based field devices, docking stations, virtual network training and a greater emphasis being given to communications and testing equipment, field technicians may have their days simplified sooner than they think.