IT managers considering the rollout of a business application to a mobile workforce first need to consider one key point: do those employees need to have uninterrupted access to the application from virtually any place at any time? The answer to this question will determine the selection of the mobile network technology and, as a consequence, the service provider and systems integrator for the project.
Where a company requires a genuinely mobile solution that allows the remote worker to access company information from their own device, the choice of network depends on a complex equation which includes cost, transmission speed, geography, reliability and security, as well as the degree to which the information concerned is business critical.
One fundamental point is that wireless networks are never ubiquitous. Mobile service providers have historically got round this problem by interconnecting their networks with each other and supplying seamless ‘roaming’ to customers of rival networks. Revenue is then shared out among any networks carrying a call. Even then, there are often gaps in coverage.
Roaming agreements can take many months to be negotiated and some newer networks, such as WiFi and 3G, are still not covered by them. This is not a problem if a mobile application involves the delivery of only short bursts of small amounts of data – that can easily be handled by a GPRS [general packet radio services] network, which are virtually ubiquitous today, especially in
urban areas. All the major mobile carriers, including Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile, offer GPRS services, and initial shortages of GPRS handsets in 2000-2001 has given way to greater availability.
To get round the problem of breaks in coverage – say, when an engineer is working on equipment in a remote area – many field service applications include a capability to re-synchronise data with centralised computers when the user comes back into range.
More data-heavy applications, such as repair diagrams and photographs for engineers, need more bandwidth. 3G networks, which will transmit data around five times faster than GPRS, are only now being rolled out and services are at an embryonic stage. WiFi networks, which transmits data up to 100 times faster than most GPRS networks, are still in short supply. They also tend to be located at public ‘hotspots’ such as airport lounges, conference centres and coffee shops, which makes them unsuitable for ‘field’ applications.
The mobile industry has recognised the roaming problem, and some operators have begun to offer all-in-one services covering a range of network technologies, from standard GSM to WiFi. But there remains a suspicion that the actual build out of upgraded or entirely new networks is still a higher priority than, say, roaming agreements or the offer of sophisticated service-level agreements to corporate customers.
Even companies wanting to roll out data-heavy applications today do not need to wait for new networks to be built and roaming agreements to be struck, however.
There has never been a wider variety of wireless network technologies available to the business user. Working through these choices can be a big task, which might put off all but the most diligent IT managers. But speaking to the mobile marketing people, at least, one person’s baffling complexity is another person’s choice.
Alongside conventional mobile network technologies such as GPRS and 3G, users can also rely on the standard fixed telephone network and develop solutions that allow remote access to company data. For instance, Expertcity, a US-based provider of real-time web-based remote access and customer support technologies, provides a remote control tool that allows customers to use a basic Internet connection anywhere in the world to access their office applications. The solution simply requires the installation of Expertcity software on the user’s computer, with no need to modify other elements such as firewalls and servers. Richard Wolfe-Daimpre, managing director of the company’s UK operations, says he finds the system so easy to use that he no longer bothers to carry a laptop even when he is traveling abroad.
Satellite networks are another alternative. Costs have come down and equipment is far less clunky than in the past. Inmarsat’s regional BGAN (broadband global area network) satellite service, launched at the end of last year, uses standard GPRS and IP technology to deliver secure data connectivity at up to 144 kbit/s to lightweight notebook-sized terminals across 99 countries in Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and North Africa.
Hanza, a Latvian company specialising in the provision of electronic and financial services, has provided regional broadband satellite terminals to its field workers because the local cellular network is insufficient to support the services the company requires. It has also installed terminals in all of its customers’ premises because even fixed-line services are slow, are not always reliable and secure, and in many areas are absent altogether. Anatoli Arkipox, Hanza’s IT and product development director, says the service “brings us into the leading edge, delivering competitive advantage and greater customer service.”
Mobitex, another data-only network technology, was developed by Ericsson and offers always-on packet-switched data transmission at low speeds. This kind of system is attractive to organisations that need real-time data transmission, such as the emergency services, which are often reluctant to rely on cellular networks. Most cellular networks still prioritise voice traffic, and text messages can be subject to delay. London’s Metropolitan Police Service is equipping up to 3,000 vehicles with Mobitex-based terminals from service provider Transcomm to enable officers to access the Police National Computer and other systems while they are on the road. Paul Glaister, the Met’s communications programme manager, says that the nature of police work “requires a completely reliable solution to transfer mission-critical data to officers on patrol”.
Eventually, most corporate users will find cellular networks and/or WiFi offer the best combination of service, coverage and cost. Capital expenditure on new mobile networks has been maintained at a surprisingly high level, even considering the downturn in the telecoms sector that has exposed significant over-capacity in many networks.
Since 1999, a range of increasingly sophisticated network technologies have been rolled out in the UK. By 2005, say experts, all major carriers will be capable of offering relatively high-speed data services covering large chunks of the country to their clients. And operators across Europe and around the world will by then have struck a variety of roaming agreements that will enable businesses to widen the coverage of their mobile applications.