How will 3G data services concretely affect the enterprise?

Proponents say it will be like taking your desktop anywhere

3G data services are bringing desktop-like experiences to mobile laptops and voice/data smartphones.

Don't underestimate 3G data services, industry experts say. These offerings will tie mobile laptops and voice/data smartphones into corporate networks with something approximating a useable desktop computing experience.

"Mobile broadband laptops are a Big Deal," says Rajeev Chand, director of wireless research for Rutberg & Co., a San Francisco investment bank. "It's driving real traffic for carriers."

That's because enterprises are using 3G to do real work. A recent survey by Chadwick Martin Bailey of 114 IT decision makers at companies with 1,000 or more employees found that 48% said they're using 3G services, and that another 22% plan to start within the next 12 months.

"There's no 'killer app' for 3G," says Paul DeBeasi, senior analyst for wireless and mobility, Burton Group, technology research and advisory company. "But it does mean easier access to information, faster customer response times to customers, always-available access to databases, and increased job and work flexibility."

"3G" refers to Evolution-Data Only (EV-DO) and High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), with downlink speeds of 500K to 700Kbps, and uplink speeds of 60K to 100Kbps. Enhanced 3G networks, such as EV-DO Revision A and High-Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA) improve the uplink by about three times that speed, and offer about 1Mbps download speeds.

This is a far cry from 100Mbps Ethernet to the desktop. But most of the applications running over that cable don't require anything like 100Mbps. 3G networks, in effect, let you take your "desk" with you.

"It's not like plugging into an RJ-45 jack, but we're getting closer all the time," says Craig Mathias, a Network World blogger and tester, and principal for Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile consulting firm. Mathias says anything you can do in the office you can now do outside the office with 3G…provided you have coverage, provided the mobile carrier has the needed capacity, provided you have the right handheld.

"It means that field applications can become 'richer,'" says Tom Henderson, a Network World Clear Choice tester and managing director for ExtremeLabs, a technology testing and research lab in Indianapolis. "You can have more multimedia [in applications] without latency issues, and it permits a lot more tools and applications on the device." The corollary is that the Web sites accessed by 3G mobile users will be able to make more use, and more sophisticated use, of rich media compared with static HTML pages, he says.

"This seems like an obvious migration to me," says Ken Dulaney, a vice president covering wireless for Gartner. "Enterprise IT will move to 3G simply because the [mobile] operators will move it there. 3G will enable more data from laptops, and will improve some handheld experiences where browsing is important."

Earlier this year, Gartner changed its advice about not buying laptops with embedded 3G radios. Until now, an embedded card tied the laptop to one carrier's cellular network, and service plans were costly, especially when users incurred roaming charges. Dulaney says that by 2009 IT can plan on 3G laptops lasting three years without needing a wireless upgrade. And that's desirable, he says, because internal communications modules outperform USB or card modules. And mobile carriers are offering more competitive service plans and options.

But companies should look closely at the ROI calculation: plenty of workers don't travel enough to warrant $600 a year for 3G data service, especially with Wi-Fi hotspots and Ethernet access at many hotels priced at $10 to $20 per day, and sometimes even for free. But Dulaney's April report noted that Verizon Wireless offers a $15 pay-as-you-go data service for laptop users, worth considering as an alternative to Wi-Fi plans.

In the United States, mobile carriers are scrambling to expand their 3G scope and reliability, including better indoor coverage. The reach of those networks, their actual throughput (which is shared by users linked to a given cell), and reliability can as a result vary widely. Enterprise IT executives need to know the requirements of their mobile end users, and map these to the devices, service plans and infrastructure costs (including device management, security and support) needed to satisfy them.

Those infrastructure costs, including business process re-engineering, could be substantial. Today's IT infrastructure is optimized for desktop productivity, Mathias says. Re-orienting to optimize for mobile productivity will be a "fairly large shift in thinking," he says.

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