Effective communications between various teams is crucial to successful operations. In distribution and warehouse areas, for example, employees must be able to talk to one another seamlessly to ensure that critical operations go off without a hitch. For decades, water treatment companies have relied heavily on two-way radio systems for push-to-talk (PTT) communications. While these systems still work well in many instances, they are limited in scalability for large jobs that require staff to be mobile and spread over large areas, and they suffer from a lack of interoperability with other types of networks. This has prevented many water treatment organizations from enabling PTT for every worker across the entire enterprise.

Communications gets "smarter"

At the same time, the communications industry has seen a seismic shift toward use of “smart” devices by utilities teams, businesses and consumers alike. This trend toward smart device use has left many water treatment professionals and IT managers looking for ways to take advantage of this more modern and powerful communications technology. Equipping smartphones with PTT capability is one way of connecting all water treatment staff into a unified PTT network.

However, pinched budgets often limit the options available to water treatment professionals. In its 2013 State of the Water Industry Report, the American Water Works Association underscored the fact that costs are still top-of-mind for water treatment professionals. The nation’s slow economic recovery, says the report, “has done little to allay the single greatest concern facing water professionals today: The cost of caring for our aging water systems.”

Though aging water facility communications systems need modernizing, budgets dictate that much of the industry must avoid solutions that require costly infrastructure refits and significant hardware purchases.

Rather than trying to remove and replace an entire existing communications system with new hardware — be it digital radios or a new fleet of smartphones — water treatment professionals should look for ways to extend the lives of older radio systems and allow workers to concurrently use commonly-carried smartphones, tablets and other devices for secure, enterprise-wide PTT.

This can be accomplished through software that enables interoperability between disparate devices and networks. By adopting this software platform, water treatment facilities can connect existing radio handsets to newer smartphones, tablets, desktop PCs and nearly any other type of communications device in use. Smart device users can access secure PTT channels via a mobile app interface, while radio users can continue to use these devices as usual, making the migration to an interoperable system simple and easy.

Exceeding boundaries

Since smartphones and other mobile computing devices can connect to widespread 3G, 4G/LTE and Wi-Fi networks, this system removes network and geographic boundaries from PTT, letting users join secure channels from any location. This is a tremendous step forward for mobile communications between water treatment teams because it enables true, enterprise-wide PTT, unhindered by barriers between devices, networks or locations.

Bringing smartphones online as PTT devices also lets water treatment professionals take advantage of their advanced functionality. For example, using dispatch software installed on industry standard desktop PCs, dispatchers can view real-time location data for mobile teams using smartphone-standard GPS. It also means that field teams can leverage multiple functionalities from a single device, such as mapping, web access, PTT and more.

By looking to improve interoperability between systems rather than replacing infrastructure from the ground up, water treatment professionals can gradually bring newer, more modern technology into their PTT ecosystem. Procurement teams, therefore, need only purchase the equipment that staff absolutely requires, eliminating the need for large, upfront capital investments in new hardware.

Because operators can manage the network via a desktop PC and mobile teams can use nearly any device to join, this system offers virtually unlimited expansibility. Adding new users on smart devices or radios is as simple as clicking a mouse, downloading an app from standard app stores or bringing more radio handsets online.

Water treatment professionals and IT managers should not overlook the usefulness and value of equipping smartphones for PTT. Augmenting a facility’s existing, single-function PTT system with smartphones extends communications to more teams inexpensively and without any kind of hardware overhaul.

The opportunity to simultaneously enhance existing systems and control costs is rare. Nevertheless, software that makes disparate communications systems work together does just that, bringing more powerful and flexible devices into your PTT network while still keeping older systems relevant and highly functional.

The yield is a PTT network that encompasses the entire enterprise, enabling increased productivity, better maintenance times, faster safety response and greater collaboration between teams of all types.

Tom Guthrie, president and CEO of Twisted Pair Solutions, has 25 years of management experience in technology engineering and operations for a wide variety of service providers. Prior to joining Twisted Pair Solutions, Tom was CTO for USA.NET, an outsourced provider of messaging services. In this role he was responsible for software development, operations and professional services offerings for Microsoft Exchange as well as other outsourced messaging services for enterprise customers. Tom has led engineering and operations organizations for service providers, such as MCI, U.S. WEST and Allied Riser Communications in support of local, long distance, Internet and wireless services. Tom holds a B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering from Oklahoma State University and Purdue University, respectively.