Communication is essential for the efficient operation of every electrical or VDV project. How efficiently office personnel can communicate with project managers in the field and how effectively foremen are able to stay in touch with workers at various locations on job sites increases productivity and profit margins, while poor communication leads to wasted time and costly mistakes. Contractors today have more communications options than ever before.

Wireless telephones, two-way radios, combination wireless phone-radio devices and pagers carry the bulk of field communications among construction personnel. None of these technologies are new—radios and pagers have been used for years and the first telephone/walkie-talkie devices have been available for more than 10 years. But technological advances make each method of communication more efficient than ever before.

Most contractors find that there is no single, all-purpose communication device. Selecting the programs and equipment that best fit their circumstances can be a challenging task.

Wireless telephones

The ubiquitous wireless telephone has changed the way the world communicates, and wireless phones have been in use on construction sites for many years.

Wireless technology has improved greatly since the first analog cellular phones were introduced 20 years ago, and wireless services and equipment have steadily improved ever since. However, there are significant differences in the quality and range of services offered by wireless providers; there are still areas where wireless equipment will not operate; and as frequent users of wireless phones know, calls are too frequently dropped and signals still fade.

Therefore, selecting the best service provider and calling plan is an important decision.

“You want a network that is reliable and offers calling plans that fit your company’s needs,” said Brenda Raney, Verizon Wireless spokesperson. “You want a company with an efficient, dependable network that has the same caliber service wherever you may go.”

To evaluate available plans and select the one that best suits your needs, Raney advises evaluating where company personnel will be calling from, locations to which calls will be placed and how often calls will be made.

“Even though a small contractor may not be working out of town, we encourage a national plan because long distance is there whenever it’s needed,” Raney said. “There is little cost difference compared to local plans, and national coverage is a better value.” The number and type of telephones needed depends on who within the company will be issued phones and how they will be used. Although some old analog phones remain in service, plans offered today are digital. Tri-mode handsets can accommodate analog and digital service and operate on digital 800 MHz and 1.9 GHz bands and automatically revert to 800 MHz analog cellular mode in areas where digital service is unavailable.

Even the most basic wireless devices today can do much more than make calls, including e-mail retrieval, text messaging, Web surfing and more.

Two-way radios

Popular as they may be, wireless phones haven’t replaced two-way radios on construction projects. Two-way radios provide a fast, dependable and economical way to conduct short, direct conversations—transmissions go from radio to radio, not relayed via a wireless telephone system, and there are no airtime or roaming charges incurred as with wireless phone service. Today’s two-way radios have enhanced features, wider ranges, and batteries that provide more talk time and last longer than previously.

Choice of radios depends on where and how they will be used.

Equipment with fewer channels is sufficient if only a half dozen people are on the air. On large jobs, radios with more channels are needed, and if there is a high concentration of telecommunication in the work area, multiple channels add flexibility, said Chris Oehlert, marketing communications manager, Midland Radio Corp. If job sites are concentrated in small areas, a low-power output radio can provide the needed range at an economical cost.

“For indoor use,” said Oehlert, “a UHF radio typically provides better penetration of concrete and steel for clear communication. If the radio is to be used outdoors most of the time, a VHF radio is the way to go.”

Oehlert adds that two improvements in two-way radios are reduction in radio size/weight and increased power/range and while durability remains an important factor, radios today are ergonomically designed.

Phone/radio combos

Combining cell phone service and two-way radio capability in a single compact device, introduced by Nextel more than 10 years ago, is a popular option with many construction organizations. Initially, radio range was limited, but in 2003 Nextel unveiled the first nationwide service, and Verizon and Sprint have also entered the market. The advantages of dual capabilities in a single hand-held instrument are obvious.

“Typically, construction personnel in the field use the cellular capability when longer conversations are necessary, while the Direct Connect walkie-talkie feature is used for short conversations when information or instruction is needed quickly,” said Daryl Newman, construction industry segment vice president, Nextel Communications.

Newman believes that the dual-feature devices are not only a communications tools, but are enhancements to productivity.

“The two-way radio feature provides instant connectivity, which saves time and reduces use of cellular minutes, which saves money. Workers on job sites today can carry one device on their tool belts combining both functions, along with other integrated capabilities, including Internet access and two-way messaging.”

Pagers

Numeric pagers remain the most widely used models, receiving and displaying telephone numbers of callers. The latest models have clocks, alarms, alerts and some have pre-programmed messages. Alphanumeric pagers allow callers to leave text messages and e-mail notifications. The latest advance in pagers is two-way messaging. Coverage plans include nationwide service.

Despite the popularity of wireless telephones, pagers continue to be widely used in construction markets, said Joe Brooks, SkyTel vice president for sales.

“For reliable message delivery, nothing compares to a pager,” said Brooks. Because pagers operate on lower bands than wireless telephones, they have wider coverage and deeper penetration into structures. Pagers are very popular for communicating with delivery personnel. Because keypads of alphanumeric models are arranged like a typewriter keyboard, text messages are easier to write, and they are less expensive. Reliability, convenience and expense are important pagers benefits.”

The essentials

“Effective communication is extremely important ... you can’t overemphasize how important it is,” said Bill Powell, president and chief executive officer of Chewning & Wilmer, Richmond, Va. “Clarity and speed are essential—when we need to communicate, we need to be in touch immediately.”

Powell said that Chewning & Wilmer depends primarily on wireless telephones. Two-way conversations are more effective than radios, he believes. Two-way radios are still used, primarily for wire pulls. Pagers are used by service technicians, who also have wireless telephones; the pagers are used when a job is in a location where wireless phones don’t work well.

Powell said the company tried telephone/two-way radio service for a while, but switched back to straight wireless service.

“The combination service had many features we didn’t like, and the radio chatter could be very disruptive,” he said. “Changing has saved us about a third on wireless telephone costs.”

Chewning & Wilmer currently has about 60 wireless phones. They are provided to all project managers, field supervision personnel and a large portion of the company’s administrative staff. The devices are for telephone communication, not used for text messaging, to access the Internet, or other advanced capabilities.

Powell said communications is a major expense that requires the direct attention of a company’s owners.

“Management must monitor wireless phone use,” he said. “We review our plan with our service provider every quarter and depend on our representative to provide the best possible service at the least cost.”

In Phoenix, Ariz., Cannon & Wendt use wireless phones and make extensive use of two-way radios and use alpha-numeric pagers.

“All of our project managers and most of our foremen and all of our service drivers have wireless phones,” said Jim Calano, information systems manager. “And the list is growing, so it is important to have a plan that’s flexible to accommodate changing needs.”

Calano advises not to get locked into a plan that can’t be changed.

“You never know what is going to happen and how needs will change, so your wireless plan must be flexible.”

Cannon & Wendt crews use two-way radios for basic on-site communications, which the company operate on an assigned frequency. All service technicians carry pagers, as do some journeymen and wiremen.

“We do a lot of hospital work,” said Calano, “and wireless telephones cannot be used in hospitals, so we must use other methods of communication.”

Applied Control Technology, Texarkana, Ark., uses two-way radios for person-to-person communications on job sites and wireless telephones between the office and field operations and to contact suppliers from the field, said Duane Corcoran, president. All superintendents carry wireless phones. Pagers are no longer used.

“We don’t use the combo phone-radios,” Corcoran said. “A lot of our work is in rural areas and we haven’t been able to get the wireless coverage we need with combination service. However, national service is now available, and we would go with combo equipment if we see it can provide the coverage we require.”

Whether buying regular wireless service on a telephone-radio program, Corcoran suggests testing phones before committing to a contract.

“Be sure coverage is what it is advertised to be before signing,” he advised. “And make sure your plan has the flexibility to change with your needs.” EC

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.