Time Warner Clears Communications Jam

When their screens go blank, cable TV subscribers see red. A line problem, a defective converter box -- they don't want to hear about it. They want service restored.

Time Warner Cable, which services 80,000 cable customers in the Raleigh, NC region, knows that customer satisfaction depends on rapid service response. But communications between its 40 field service vehicles and dispatchers at the home office in Raleigh were stretched thin.

Technicians in 40 service trucks used a single VHF radio frequency to call dispatchers at Time Warner headquarters for work orders, schedule changes and customer account information. Technicians could be delayed for as much as 20 minutes waiting to get a call through. "The pipeline for voice communications was just too small and crowded," says Bob Hermann, Time Warner Cable plant manager. "There was too much voice traffic. To get the information they needed to do their jobs, technicians had to call into our customer service center, using lines we needed to properly service our customers."

In mid-1996, Time Warner Cable began a search for a system that would alleviate the communications congestion and, if possible, allow technicians direct access to work schedules and customer information stored in the database of Time Warner's AS/400 model 320. After investigating various options, Hermann learned of the IBM eNetwork Wireless software solution, then in beta test. "We began our discussions with IBM in October 1996 and began our full roll out in the first couple of months of 1997," he says,

In the Time Warner Cable system, service vehicles are equipped with a IBM Thinkpad portable computer and an externally mounted three watt CDPD (cellular digital packet data) modem. Data communications are via the GTE Mobile Net cellular network through an RS/6000 gateway to the AS/400. Now, a technician on the road uses the Thinkpad to access information on the AS/400 database directly, without contacting a dispatcher.

A technician's day typically includes ten to 15 scheduled service calls, according to Hermann. Previously, his first stop would be at the service center, where he would pick up his work schedule and maps, printed out by the AS/400.

During the day, he would call in from the field for additional information or with cancellations. At the end of the day he would return to the service center and drop off the paperwork to be checked to make sure all the work orders were properly completed.

The immediate effect of new system was to eliminate the visits to the service center. "Today, the technician has access to his work schedule through the Thinkpad," Hermann says. "He can go directly to his first call from his residence. During the day he can resolve his own work-related questions through the computer. If he has the opportunity, he can check the unassigned work pool for additional calls. At the end of the day, he can finish his last call and return to his home without stopping at the service center to drop off paperwork."

As a result, Hermann points out, technicians' productivity has increased by at least two service calls each day--one at the beginning and one at the end--plus the chance to fill in any cancellations with pending calls during the day.

"If a customer cancels a call now, a dispatcher sends that information out over the network. It shows up on the screen as canceled or reassigned," he says. "The dispatcher also has a messaging capability to technicians without having to rely on phone or radio communications."

Time Warner Cable purchased 25 units, 20 of which went to service vehicles. The remaining five are used by field sales personnel, who can use the Thinkpad to open and set up new accounts during a sales call directly from customers' homes.

"We're seeing a significant return on our investment," Hermann says. "If you look at the project in terms of increased productivity based on before and after analysis over three month time periods, we've found that the technicians' productivity has increased 35 to 40 percent. They aren't working harder. It's just that they're not wasting time waiting for information."

In terms of dollars, Hermann estimates that, thanks to the productivity gains, the payback on Time Warner Cable's investment was between nine and 10 months. In addition, he notes that even though the company's subscriber base has been growing since the system was implemented, there has been no corresponding growth necessary in service staff.

Customer satisfaction, a less tangible benefit, has improved as well. The company has raised its on-time record, the number of service calls completed within thirty-six hours, from 85 percent before the project to 95 percent today.

A next step, Hermann explains, will be to use the Thinkpads to store the company's technical maps. Normally, technicians have to carry a set of community street maps as well as Time Warner cable system overlays with them in their vehicles.

According to Hermann, there is no reason why the entire set of maps can't be stored on the Thinkpads' hard drives. Not only will this be a convenience, but will avoid the costs of updating and distributing paper copies. "We're testing this application now," he says. "It appears to be successful so far."

Also ahead will be installing Thinkpads in vehicles operated by the maintenance crews who service the company's cable infrastructure, as well as customer service technicians. "This is a project that will benefit our organization for years to come," Hermann says.