By William Atkinson
Like most companies, AT&T has long used a standard Virtual Private Network (VPN) product, though VPNs were never designed for use in mobile environments. As a result, during the course of any given day, a technician working in the field would likely lose connectivity with the wireless network any number of times, causing the VPN to drop its connection. The dropped connections led to three specific problems, as follows:
1. Technicians generally did not know the specific cause of the connection loss. As a result, they would usually call the helpdesk for assistance, which reduced productivity for them and for the helpdesk - increasing costs in the process.
2. AT&T uses token generators for authentication. Once connection was re-established, technicians had to log in again, find their tokens, re-enter their pins, re-launch their applications, log back in, and try to pick up where they left off.
3. The lack of reliable VPN connectivity affected the systems management process, leaving devices behind on required security patches, new drivers, and application updates.
The collective bottom line for these three connected problems was a great deal of accumulated downtime for field employees. "Technicians would often have to
re-log in eight to ten times a day," reports Andrew Osgood, principal technology security manager for AT&T. "They might be under a house pulling cable or doing a job repair. They may need to grab some extra resources from the corporate Intranet. If they lost connectivity, their equipment would often just lock up."
To address these problems, AT&T conducted a pilot trial in 2007 using Mobility XE, a mobile VPN from NetMotion Wireless. Mobility XE is specifically designed to boost productivity of field employees, ensure wireless security, ensure instant reconnect, ensure that a login state is maintained (once a connection that has been lost is re-established, the mobile VPN automatically restarts a session with the user never needing to intervene), handle coverage gaps and roaming, and provide handheld device support of mobile devices.
Moving to a mobile VPN was clearly going to help eliminate the collection of problems defined above. Mobility XE, for example, allows users to switch over to 3G or to WiFi or to EDGE without dropping the connection. "Technicians need to log in only once during the day, instead of several times after each of the dropped connections," says Osgood. Further, the mobile VPN can be programmed to shift between different types of connectivity automatically.
For example, a technician might collect a substantial amount of field data through a mobile device that then needs to be sent to a back office. Rather than sending the data through an expensive and relatively slow 3G connection, the device can hold off until it comes across, say, a WiFi hotspot operating at much higher speeds than 3G, providing an ideal and far less costly means to download the data. A mobile VPN will handle this sort of operation entirely behind the scenes, with the technician never needing to do anything to make it happen.
The results of the pilot trial were positive, leading AT&T to roll the application out to over 39,000 field technicians across the country. Osgood reports that there were no challenges with the roll-out. "It went very smoothly," he states. "Technicians were also very happy with it. There were no complaints or concerns."
Now, when technicians drive to customer sites to perform service calls, new
installations and service upgrades, they are equipped with Panasonic Toughbooks, which have been configured for cellular data and WiFi access over the AT&T network, either through an embedded Novatel or Qualcomm modem. The wireless connectivity provides the technicians with access to e-mail, general Web browsing, and an internally-developed mobile app that handles dispatch, work orders, job tickets, parts and inventory management, and customer account information.
Most importantly, Mobility XE allows technicians to maintain connectivity. They log in once a day through a secure connection. Then, they can move in and out of wireless coverage areas and roam between networks without losing their login state, regardless of whether they might or might not actually be connected at any point in time. It is transparent to the technicians, who can continue to work as if they were connected.
To keep the deployment running smoothly, AT&T uses the fully-redundant capability of multiple Mobility XE server pools, which are located at key data centers, to scale up to very large numbers of users. Each pool provides load-balancing and backup servers, mobility warehouses that store user configurations, standby warehouses, and reporting servers that aggregate data for Mobility XE's Analytics Module. "We also use secure ID authentication," continues Osgood. "NetMotion allows us to use both Radius and Active Directory."
While the automated load-balancing and failover capability automatically maintain overall performance without the need for intervention, AT&T also uses the notifications capability in the Analytics Module to proactively monitor the deployment. It provides alerts related to any potential problems, such as a server that might be approaching a utilization threshold.
Not having to log in numerous times each day as a result of lost connections saves valuable time for technicians, and improves customer service as a result. Productivity has also increased as a result of fewer calls to the helpdesk from technicians. Consistent connectivity also helps to ensure that security patches, new drivers for mobile devices, and application updates are received without delay, which streamlines systems management.
Overall, AT&T has seen a 1.8 times increase in jobs performed per day, a 54% decrease in overtime, and a 43% reduction in expenses. "Even if we were only able to get one extra job per day from the technicians, we would still consider that a positive," states Osgood. He notes that the technology is especially useful after a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or ice storm. "The technicians have 24/7 uptime," he explains.