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How Vehicle Area Networks Help Utility Companies Reduce Operating Costs and Improve Operations

The pressure that utility companies face to reduce costs, maintain aging infrastructure, meet growing consumer service expectations, and comply with new government regulatory requirements continues to grow.

Utilities are seeking to address these challenges by finding new ways to lower operational expenses, increase their agility, and launch additional value-added services. In line with these goals, utilities are focusing on reducing the cost and complexity involved in supporting their mobile workforce and fleet of service vehicles, while at the same time launching more sophisticated mobile workforce and other IoT applications.

For many years, utilities have used cellular technology to connect their mobile workforce and vehicles. However, as utility companies continue to add new tools and systems to their vehicles, they are struggling with their current approach to cellular connectivity.  Each new system, device or tool added to the vehicle—a laptop, rugged tablet, or GPS tracking system, for example—has its own additional installation challenges like multiple antennas, as well as recurring connectivity costs. The utility must then manage hundreds or even thousands of mobile devices, each with its own cellular data plan, leading to higher monthly expenses and administration costs.

Today, however, advances in Long-Term Evolution (LTE) cellular technology, fleet management systems, and mobile workforce management software tools provide utilities with a new way to approach connecting their mobile workforce—one that simplifies IT management and presents an opportunity for a significant return on investment (ROI). The new approach, based on a Vehicle Area Network, can improve cellular coverage and increase operational efficiency—all while reducing operating costs.

A Closer Look at Vehicle Area Networks and Their Benefits

So, what exactly is a Vehicle Area Network (VAN)? A VAN is created by installing a single cellular gateway or router in each vehicle. Instead of placing an embedded or internal cellular modem in each laptop, tablet, or other remote device, the gateway or router creates a secure, reliable, always-on internet connection for all the vehicle- and personnel-based devices and services.

For example, laptops and tablets can share the internet connection via wired ethernet or long-range Wi-Fi hotspot from the gateway. Similarly, applications – such as in-vehicle cameras and remote system access – can also share network resources, enabling personnel to more easily interact with the line-of-business applications they use every day, increasing their productivity. The VAN can also include GPS location services and vehicle telematics sensors to support real-time location tracking and vehicle data collection for improved fleet management.

By providing this functionality, a VAN can significantly reduce operational costs in several ways:

  • Reduced cellular subscription costs – Devices and systems can share a single cellular data plan, eliminating the need for a separate cellular subscription for each device.
  • More effective use of local Wi-Fi – Costs associated with uploading large, bandwidth-intensive files can be reduced by automatically switching a vehicle’s cellular connection to a local Wi-Fi network when the vehicle is in a utility-owned depot or yard.
  • Increased vehicle uptime – A VAN makes it easier to collect engine and vehicle health data using the vehicle’s diagnostic port. Fleet management software can use this data for real-time warnings of maintenance issues, reducing the potential for costly repairs and minimizing service downtime.
  • Increased field worker productivity – Simpler connectivity makes it easier to provide mobile workers with the new applications they need to be more productive, such as real-time access to customer and product data, asset location, and parts inventory.
  • Reduced financial risk through increased security – A VAN can help reduce the likelihood of a data breach by consolidating security for all devices through the single router or gateway, a simpler and far safer approach than having a client-based virtual private network (VPN) on each device.
  • Reduced costs associated with in-vehicle maintenance – A consolidated view of all the vehicles’ systems connected through the VAN makes it easy to troubleshoot and configure devices, reducing the need for IT teams to access vehicles in order to resolve connectivity issues or perform upgrades.
  • Reduced costs associated with technology evolution and changing business requirements – A VAN makes it far easier to add new technologies, such as cameras, voice over IP (VoIP), bucket weight monitoring, and other Internet of Things (IoT) technologies.
  • Reduced device costs – A VAN enables devices to rely on Wi-Fi for connectivity, so every device does not require an integrated LTE module.

Sierra Wireless – Your Source for Secure, Managed Vehicle Area Network Solutions

Sierra Wireless AirLink® VAN solutions deliver utilities the key capabilities they need to use VANs to improve their operations and maximize their operational cost savings while also supporting the latest workforce management and other IoT applications.

For example, AirLink gateways are built to survive harsh vehicle environments, and they support the connectivity options utilities need – such as Wi-Fi, Ethernet, serial, and more – to connect multiple devices and support modern fleet management and telematics applications and services.

In addition, Sierra Wireless’s on-premises AirLink Manager application and cloud-based AirLink Management Service application make it easy for utilities to remotely manage in-vehicle devices and systems connected to the VAN from a single location.

Finally, Sierra Wireless helps protect VANs from cyberattacks by running its AirLink services over globally distributed, independently audited Tier 43 datacenters. Sierra Wireless also uses device-initiated communication protocols to protect gateways from intrusion and other network threats.

Start with Sierra, and Start Thriving

To thrive in the face of today’s financial, technology, service delivery, and regulatory challenges, utility companies must modernize their infrastructure and ensure secure, cost-effective management of their mobile assets and personnel.

Sierra Wireless has a proven track record of helping utilities use VANs and other IoT technologies to modernize their fleet communications and reduce overall costs. In fact, four out of the top five power utility companies use Sierra Wireless solutions to connect critical infrastructure and vehicle fleets.

As you look to the future of your utility infrastructure, read our white paper, How Utility Companies Can Reduce Operating Costs With Vehicle Area Networks and remember to Start with Sierra to understand how you can use VAN and other IoT technologies to reimagine your utility’s future in a connected world.