Dressing up wireless

The next time you see a Bell Canada field technician up a pole pulling wires, don’t be surprised if the technician pauses, looks at a compact device on his vest, pokes at a screen with a finger or stylus and then carries on working.

When it comes to using wearable wireless technology for dispatch or to access data on the corporate network, Bell Canada field technicians are on top of a wave industry analysts predict will have a major impact on the business, industrial and consumer markets over the next ten years.

In October 2000, 19 Bell Canada technicians started a field trial of the Mobile Assistant (MA) from Fairfax, Va.-based Xybernaut Corporation. They used the wearable wireless devices, which they wore as vests or belts, in all kinds of weather and under various work conditions.

The Bell Canada technicians were, admittedly, used to working without wires – but not up poles or in vaults. Before the MA field tests, they used IBM ThinkPad laptops that they kept in their trucks for remote data access. Using MA computing devices equipped with either head-mounted or flat panel display screens for viewing images, the technicians accessed dispatch and technical data while on the job.

In August, Bell Canada and Xybernaut announced the successful completion of what the companies billed as “the world’s first large-scale market trial of wearable computers.”

“Wearable PCs performed extremely well in a number of environments, saving us time on repair calls and resulting in better customer service,” says Brad Chitty, Bell Canada’s general manager, mobile communication services.

According to Chitty, wearable portability reduced the need to return to vehicles to boot up laptops and enter data, saving each technician more than 50 minutes per day in run-around time. The MA’s daylight readable screen contributed to a reduction in computing time and proved to be ideal for viewing plant schematic diagrams.

Constant access to portable information also eliminated the need for a great deal of paper information. And, since wearable, wireless PCs are in the same price range as laptops, the return on investment for Bell was almost immediate.

“To say that Bell Canada is extremely pleased with the results is an understatement. We had to literally beg trial participants to return the trial units,” Chitty said.

Bell Canada is now outfitting 300 field service technicians with the Mobile Assistant V. Over the next couple of years, Chitty expects up to 2,000 technicians to be equipped with wearable wireless devices. The units will eventually replace the laptops that are used in the field by approximately 10,000 Bell Canada technicians.