First Read

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How a Power Company's Mobile Plan Eased a Neighborhood Power Outage

Before I could call the power company to report the outage, my smartphone received a call from the company describing its response.

PP&L Electric Utilities, Nuance Communications, emergency  notification, power outage, power failure, mobile phones, smartphones

We had a power outage in my neighborhood on Dec. 1, and I'm glad it happened because it again proved to me the power of mobile phones, wireless communications, and corporate planning and readiness.

The outage came as a surprise as I was finishing writing my last story of the day for eWEEK just before 5 p.m. EST. When the lights went off, I shut down my PCs, which are on uninterruptible power supplies, and headed downstairs to find a flashlight so I could call my local electric company, PPL Electric Utilities in central Pennsylvania (PP&L), to report the problem.

But before I even looked up the number, my smartphone rang with an automated call from PP&L informing me of the outage that was affecting some 652 customers and that was already being responded to by repair crews. Less than 30 minutes later, I got a second automated call from PP&L informing me that the problem was expected to be fixed by 8 p.m.

I had preregistered for such updates when the emergency notification program began back in May, but I didn't think about it again until the power outage struck.

The power returned earlier than expected—some 60 minutes after it had failed—and at 6:24 p.m. I received an email from PP&L telling me that the problem was repaired and all customers were back on line.

Through it all, I was impressed that all of the notifications and repairs had come without my having to make one call to report the issue. None of my neighbors did either, as long as they were in the emergency notification system.

The day after the outage, I called PP&L to share my enthusiasm for the company's response and for the technology that allowed it to happen.

Paul Wirth, the director of PP&L's utility communications, told me that the system is run by a third-party vendor, Nuance Communications, through its outage communications business. Residents can sign up for PP&L's outage alerts via text messages, automated phone calls or emails using the system.

The outage management system gets data from utility crews in the field using in-truck computers and reports the data to the vendor, which then sends out alerts to customers based on real-time reports from workers. That allows repair crews to estimate how long the repairs will take, said Wirth.

When I told Wirth of my good experience with the system, he said the company has been getting a lot of positive feedback since the system was deployed.

"It worked the way it was supposed to for you, I'm glad to hear that," said Wirth.

To me, this was customer service at its best and clear evidence of how technology can truly improve people's lives, especially in emergencies. I'm the first to bash bad technology when it fails. But I also am among the first to laud good technology when it proves itself.

This was a shining example of all that is right with the power of technology.