Troubleshooting Holes in Wireless Coverage

GIS is helping to analyze coverage trouble spots in new wireless services.

by / October 31, 1996
New digital
wireless services
may soon challenge
cellular phone
systems. GIS is
being employed to
help analyze coverage
trouble spots.
The all-digital personal communication services (PCS) are poised to leapfrog cellular phone technology. First introduced in 1995 in the Washington, D.C., area, PCS, with their encrypted voice capability, superior performance and greater versatility, became an instant hit with the beltway crowd. Although the present cost of digital handsets is considerably higher than their cellular cousins, there is little doubt that digital communication is the next generation of wireless technology .

Last July, BellSouth Mobility DCS (BSMDCS) took the lead in offering all-digital PCS in North Carolina, South Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. Services include built-in digital paging, voice messaging, call hold, call waiting and forwarding, and a high degree of security.

To assist in handling customer service calls, and analyzing trends and trouble spots in the new coverage areas, BSMDCS developed its own Trouble Tracking System (TTS), a proprietary software application using MapInfo technology. "We developed the system," said Systems Analyst Bruce Winters, "to help us better record and track problems customers may experience with our new wireless PCS services. We can either resolve the problem quickly or capture data for trend analysis. The TTS allows us to do this in realtime."

According to Winters, the TTS has two separate applications, both talk to a single Oracle database. The administrative application is written in the same programming language as the billing system to make better use of existing resources, and is used for collecting and recording data from customers, generating reports and providing an avenue for follow-up. The application is used primarily by customer service, finance and other administrative departments. The technical engineering and analysis application is written in MapBasic, and is used for mapping customer service tickets that have a geographic component. It is also used for analysis, visualizing ticket relationships and evaluating problem trends. Core users are technical engineers and others who need geographically related information rather than textual reports.

Winters pointed out that BSMDCS developed the administrative application with ease of use and training in mind. "The application was designed to work with our billing system, so that the TTS could not only be launched by the system but use some of its data to provide customer service representatives (CSR) with the information they need, without having to re-key data."

When the CSR begins a new "ticket," the application brings up various panels on the screen, depending on the type of problem entered. For technical problems, the CSR asks the customer for the nearest address, intersection, or landmark where the problem occurred and enters that into the ticket. The application obtains the latitude and longitude of the location by calling a geocoder and storing the data with the ticket in the database.

If the service call is a technical problem, the ticket is routed to the Network Management Center (NMC), where it is displayed on a map as a color-coded symbol. Maps are multi-layered with state borders, market boundaries, major highways, antenna sites and other information to provide additional reference and perspective. Engineers can see at a glance if a pattern is developing and where problems are occurring.

Clicking on a symbol brings up the ticket detail; the TTS automatically color-codes the symbol to indicate the nature of the problem -- call drop or call interrupt, or unable to make or receive a call. Engineers can also zoom in on the symbol, bring up a list of nearby antenna sites and determine if there is a "hole" in the coverage area, or if the customer was outside the coverage area when the event occurred. "Several calls from one particular area could indicate a hole in the coverage," Winters explained. "This system could help us determine if we need to install another cell site or evaluate customer usage."

When latitude and longitude are not available, the application allows the user to view the information in a more traditional manner by bringing up browsers and graphs. (Browsers, here, refer to searching through and querying a database, and looking at data in spreadsheet format.) "No matter which trouble-tracking application is being used to view, analyze or respond to the customer problem," Winters said, "the ticket can be viewed, updated, routed, or reported in realtime so that everyone on the system can see the data and follow efforts to resolve the problem."

The NMC has the ability to route technical tickets to engineers located throughout the coverage area, either at switch sites or at a main office in their region. Tickets are routed to individual engineers via their user ID. When they log in, the systems knows the region in which they are working.

Do customers call in often with problems ? Not as often as one might imagine, said Winters. "We feel very fortunate when a customer calls us and tells us about a problem -- many don't call."

Winters contrasted earlier, labor-intensive methods of processing service calls with the present system: "Customer service representatives would fill out forms and fax or mail them to us. We would sort them, enter the information into a database and take the applications into a meeting where people would review them. Then they may go through an e-mail process with all of the applications. The TTS has eliminated all of that. Once the data is in the system, nobody has to enter it again. We have reduced the amount of overhead involved in entering, sorting, reporting, etc. Also, managers don't have to wait for someone to bring them a copy; they can see a ticket and check its status at any time. We have a better flow of data with everybody looking at the same thing, so we have consistency. It is also easier and faster to do trend analysis with TTS."

"The personal communication services," Winters stressed, "are really the next generation of wireless technology. They will allow customers to communicate anytime, from virtually any location via an advanced digital network. The system has improved coverage area, greater clarity, less static, and sophisticated encryption for more secure conversations. They also have caller-line ID, built-in paging, text-messaging capability, and user-programmable call forwarding. That's what PCS are all about."

Will PCS hold its own against conventional cellular technology with its relatively low-cost handsets? Winters said BSMDCS is betting on it. "We spent $82 million in auction fees to buy licenses for the major trading areas that we have -- North Carolina, South Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. [Coverage areas are auctioned off by the FCC]. BellSouth and its partners are investing approximately $500 million in the region to build the network."