Managed Comms: Solution Resolves Travel, Service Issues
Business Solutions, October 2009
Life in Alaska is cyclical — driven by the weather and the availability of sunlight. For an IT service company, that means juggling technicians throughout a rugged state that can take 4-plus hours to traverse by plane. Add to that a biannual, weather-driven cycle of oil field project work on the tundra, and you have a dispatching and logistical nightmare. That is the kind of challenge faced by Philip Dreyer, GM of Ukpik, a managed communications services company based in Anchorage, AK. Outwitting the harsh environment of Alaska has led Ukpik to develop its own telephony appliance to fuel ongoing expansion after three years of nearly steady 25% revenue growth.
Unusual IT Project Flow Strains Resources
Due to constrictions such as frozen waterways and thawing tundra, most Alaskan oil exploration occurs between Jan. 1 and March 15. To accomplish that work, barges take supplies to Barrow at the northernmost point of the state. Those supplies are unloaded, filling football field-sized areas with everything from foodstuffs to IT components. The loads are then moved to sites 90 miles inland, where temporary outposts spring up. Called "man camps," those sites house employees running drilling rigs. Come March 15, as the tundra prepares to thaw, the process is reversed. For IT companies such as Ukpik, that means twice a year nearly every person on staff is deployed at the same time, stretching the company thin. Then, once they deploy the communications tools needed at these sites — everything from phones to fax to Internet connections — they must service them.
"You are talking about deploying communication projects on the northern tundra of Alaska at camps that cost oil companies a million dollars a day to operate, so the pressure is on," says Dreyer. "They demand dependable communications — not only to facilitate conversations with the mother company, but also to maintain the morale of workers and ensure connections with major cities in case of injuries. Communications are the lifeblood to these camps." The projects are also closely entwined with Ukpik's survival, accounting for about 15% of the company's revenue. Dreyer explains the projects in the oil fields are inexorably linked to other work because oil companies are such a large vertical in Alaska. "If you do a poor job with those deployments, the ramifications are far-reaching."
While crucial to Ukpik's business growth, the oil field work was draining the company's resources. "In January, we were dispatching techs to handle cable, install switches, and test the connections, then sending them out again in March to roll up the cable, pack up equipment, and get it all back to the coast safely," says Dreyer. While the cost of the equipment movement wasn't bad, the cost to move people was high. The trip often entailed a plane ticket and a helicopter ride — twice for each step — and airline tickets can run $3,000. Ukpik knew it needed a solution, a rough-and-ready appliance that was dependable and easy to handle at the customer's end but also enabled remote monitoring and management by Ukpik.
Develop Unified Comms Solution To Overcome Geographic Hurdles
As it endeavored to create a managed communications solution, Ukpik first determined the common needs of its customers — telephone, high-definition video, Internet, video chat, fax, video surveillance cameras, and remote controlled access control components — and designed a product it nicknamed "the cube." The "dumb" appliance includes multiple ports for each of those services, plus space to pack four telephones and the cabling needed to connect the appliance to necessary outlets.
Using Alcatel-Lucent components (see sidebar), the VAR constructed a 3-foot square cube that is preconfigured to connect through a satellite Internet connection (AT&T) to Ukpik's main switch located in Anchorage. That carrier-grade Alcatel-Lucent switch is housed in leased space within a secured, hardened AT&T facility. "The cube reaches out and automatically connects to that switch over the Internet, and then our customer's information runs along the AT&T backbone to our data center and servers," explains Dreyer. "That cube has all the components we need, and the brains are all in our co-located facilities." Among the hardware needed to support the cube is a $50,000 server dedicated to video chat needs and an $80,000 server that handles the high-performance needs of video conferencing, all protected behind a firewall at Ukpik's headquarters.
Now, instead of sending a tech out to the field, Ukpik ships a cube to the customer's site where a project manager can pop open the cube and handle the installation process — at least the basic service aspects, such as phone and fax. "This isn't a new invention, but it is our way to improve the service we provide," says Dreyer, adding that the development of the plug and play appliance required quite an investment of time and capital. "It has been about three years since we thought of the concept," explains Dreyer. After that, the VAR built the cube piece by piece and deployed the Alcatel-Lucent switch. Then, it took Ukpik about 20 months to work out the bugs. It was not technology issues, but rather negotiations with telephony service providers to comply with emergency 911 regulations, integrate with various carriers, and coordinate caller ID. Finally, about $400,000 later, after a year of field-testing (see sidebar, page 33), Ukpik was ready to push out its solution.
Unified Comms Solution Helps Grow Services Revenue
While the cube won't go into full-blown production until 2010, Ukpik has already sold 12 units, and has a goal of selling 250 more by the end of 2010. "So far, we've had a big response from both commercial clients — such as our existing oil company clients — and the communications carriers serving our state," explains Dreyer. (The carriers send the cubes with their technicians to test telephony connections.) The cube, fully featured, costs about $10,000, but there are lower-cost options with more basic functionality as well. Ukpik layers its monthly managed services fee over the appliance's cost. In all, Dreyer expects the Ukpik cube to add more than $50 million a year to the company's annual revenue. "We are not just looking at Alaska and the lower 48, we are looking at how this can provide options for businesses working in other underdeveloped regions, such as South America, where there is no infrastructure." With this product, nearly any location can access the Internet through satellites and have full communications capabilities.
Dreyer advises VARs in isolated regions, such as mountainous areas, to explore the potential in their region for a similar managed communications solution. He believes that because unified communications resolve so many issues for customers, it is a good investment for any IT business. He says that kind of solution allows VARs to get back to one of the basic tenets of doing business — taking care of their customers. "You must act with integrity and honesty, even down to the solutions you offer," he says. "It will pay off in success."