Last month saw both Vodafone and T-Mobile launch their first commercial third generation (3G) services in the UK, both based around data cards giving laptop users high-speed access to the Internet. The operators are keen to publicise support for 3G – with data speeds up of to 384kbit/s – but both networks acknowledge that 3G coverage is limited. Vodafone and T-Mobile have concentrated on covering the UK’s main cities; Orange and O2 are likely to adopt a similar strategy for their 3G launches, slated for later this year.
That means that businesses wanting to give staff on the move access to their email or to the Internet will have to fall back on second-generation services, such as GPRS, for some time to come. Indeed, some of the remotest parts of the country may be several years away from access to 3G, if it comes at all.
But a growing number of businesses are reporting successful deployments of GPRS data services. Interest is being driven by demand for mobile access to email and collaboration tools such as Microsoft Exchange.
Brewer Scottish &Newcastle (S&N) has equipped some 400 sales and marketing executives with GPRS data cards, running on the Vodafone network. The company, which owns beer brands such as Kronenbourg and John Smith’s, supplies 350 million customers across Europe.
The company’s decision to sell off its UK public houses business and to focus on its international brewing operations prompted a review of its IT support for field staff. S&N decided to replace dial up networking, based on landlines and analogue modems, with Vodafone Connect cards. Doing so removed the cost and support issues that came with staff dialling in to the company network from hotels. It also gave mobile workers access to the Internet even when they were not near a fixed line.
According to Charlie Anderson, a technical services manager at S&N, training new users to work with the GPRS cards takes around 15 minutes. Laptop users control the service through a ‘dashboard’ on their PCs, which helps to keep an eye on costs.
Not all executives choose to travel with a laptop, however, and for those, S&N has issued a Hewlett-Packard iPaq personal digital assistant (PDA) with Nokia mobile phones to provide online access. So far, about 45 people have this combination. “Some of the staff want quick, text based communications and they are well served by the handset and PDA combination,” says Anderson.
Handheld computers have also proved popular with Marie Curie Cancer Care. The charity, which provides nursing to cancer patients who want to be treated at home, has around 3,000 nurses ‘in the field’, and potentially it would like to give them all mobile access to their email and office diaries. To do this, Marie Curie has picked iPaq Pocket PCs, connecting to GPRS phones over a Bluetooth link. This links in to Outlook Anywhere, a mobile version of Microsoft’s email and personal information management client.
Using the always-on GRPS link, the system automatically updates employees’ contact information and diaries, so there is no need for them to dial in to the organisation’s network. The charity is rolling the system out to a range of users, including managers, head office and fund raising staff. “Some staff use laptops, but they are not always that portable, or that useful unless you make long journeys,” says Peter Crutchfield, Marie Curie’s head of IT. “Our fundraisers typically go to eight or nine places a day, so a laptop is of limited use to them. But with the PDA they can get messages wherever they are. If they arrive 10 minutes early they can catch up on email.”
The next step for the charity is to extend the system to nurses. This is set to happen sooner rather than later, as the government has set 2005 as a target for electronic patient records. This is likely to involve writing specific applications for nursing staff. In the meantime, the charity has been impressed with the results of the trial. “Some people, such as fundraisers, won’t need laptops at all, and that will save on expenditure,” Crutchfield predicts.