3G wireless not just for big shots anymore

EV-DO, other advanced mobile-data technologies getting widespread corporate adoption


EV-DO, other 3G wireless-data services are on the rise across corporations as range, prices improve.

Adidas has deployed 800 BlackBerries to its salesforce so staff can send and receive e-mail on the go. Now the athletic-wear company is finding new uses for its fleet of mobile devices.

Adidas has written several BlackBerry applications that let its sales staff access customer profiles, check inventory for product availability and get the status of outstanding orders when they’re on sales calls. By putting this real-time information into the hands of its salesforce, Adidas is racking up additional sales.

The salesforce “loves it,” says Tim Oligmueller, salesforce automation manager at Adidas. “When they see a sales opportunity when they’re in a store, they can strike while the opportunity is hot rather than getting back to the customer later after they’ve looked up information at home.”

Called Atlas-to-Go, the BlackBerry 3G application is a handheld version of Adidas’ Atlas order-entry system. Atlas-to-Go took only three days to develop.

“We never did run an ROI because it was so cheap to develop,” Oligmueller says. “We did it with in-house developers, and it took just a few days of work. We’d already invested in the devices, and the programming tools were all free on the BlackBerry Web site.”

Next up for Adidas is to add a feature to the BlackBerry application that will let a salesperson create a custom catalog for a store based on the products purchased.

“We can create a catalog on the fly by putting in the order number,” Oligmueller says. “The application creates a print-ready catalog that the customer can use in the store.”

An increasing number of companies like Adidas are providing high-speed mobile data to employees, pushing up the rate of corporate adoption of Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) and other 3G technologies. (EV-DO and Universal Mobile Telecommunications System/High Speed Downlink Packet Access (UMTS/HSDPA) are the current 3G technologies offered in the U.S. CDMA-based carriers Sprint Nextel and Verizon use EV-DO, which allows high-speed data transfer. GSM-based carrier AT&T uses UMTS/HSDPA, which allows simultaneous voice and data transfer over the 3G network.)

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The focus of mobile data rollouts has moved past e-mail and now is centered on such critical business applications as salesforce automation. CIOs are looking at how to create efficiencies in business processes or gain competitive advantage by providing mobile wireless access to network resources.

“Having e-mail so widely deployed out with the sales and marketing folks is now putting demand back into companies for other information,” says Laura Johnson, executive director of enterprise solutions for AT&T’s wireless unit. “Many companies have finished [CRM] projects, so the back-end automation is complete. With the adoption of wireless e-mail to end users, they are extending access to their sales reps. They can enter customer information, enter orders and get inventory updates when they are standing in front of the customer.”

Among the industries equipping sales staff with mobile data are pharmaceuticals, financial services, insurance and media. Food companies and other consumer-packaged-goods manufacturers are providing their truck drivers with handhelds so they can access real-time inventory information.

“Coke and Pepsi have moved from the batch systems that they had for 15 years to real-time wireless,” Johnson says. “Drivers are taking orders while on site and getting the orders delivered in real time to the distribution center. It used to be that the drivers came back at the end of the day, and the distribution center started all of its activities overnight. Now they can streamline that process throughout the day.”

It’s not just sales staff who are getting mobile wireless access to customer data. It’s also utilities’ and other industries’ service staff in the field. Public safety officials are using high-speed wireless access to receive and transmit images, for example, police officers accessing offenders’ mug shots.

Retail outlets find that it’s quicker to set up mobile wireless in a new store than it is to wait for a carrier to hook up a traditional T-1 link. Even construction sites and such outdoor venues as fairs and stadiums are using high-speed wireless data because it’s easier and less expensive to set up and tear down than a wired network.

Mobile wireless is shaking things up at Joy Mining Machinery, a Franklin, Pa., firm that provides 3G cards to its executives and service personnel in the field. The company has 800 laptop users, who access its VPN using Wi-Fi, broadband or dial-up connections through Fiberlink Communications’ secure remote-access software, says Tim Spence, client services manager with Joy Mining Machinery. “We’ve given out [cellular cards] when dial-up is not an option, and when there’s no access to Wi-Fi.”

Spence says his users are looking for 3G coverage to reach more of the rural areas where Joy Mining Machinery’s customers are located. “A lot of my laptop users are remote field service people,” he says. “We service the mining industry: coal mines, iron ore mines. They are not in metropolitan areas. That’s a challenge for us in finding ways to connect at those sites. Some sites have gone with cellular because dial-up was slower or problematic.”

Spence sees growing demand for wireless access to network resources among the company’s 2,500 users. “Initially, we were restricting wireless access. You couldn’t get it except for on an approved basis,” he says. “But over the past two years, it has skyrocketed from maybe 10% to 15% of our end users to 50% to 75% connecting through wireless.”

Spence says he has an ongoing BlackBerry pilot project for executives that may get rolled out to the entire salesforce. “Right now, I do see wireless cellular expanding to more users,” he says. “There are more users asking about it, and managers are justifying the cost.”

The ROI for mobile data is “increased productivity, increased communication, access to e-mail and timely access to our systems,” Spence says. “Previously, our field people had to wait until evening when they were at home or at a hotel to retrieve or send e-mail. . . . The cost of wireless is certainly a concern, but the productivity increase offsets that.”

Why users like mobile data

Users like EV-DO and 3G technologies because they are faster than earlier wireless technologies and more convenient than Wi-Fi. They don’t need to hunt down a Starbucks to hook up to Wi-Fi to access e-mail or look up critical customer data. Given the widespread coverage of many EV-DO and 3G wireless networks, users find they can get high-speed network access from most locations. “We haven’t had any issues with coverage,” Adidas’ Oligmueller says, adding that his company buys its BlackBerry 3G service from AT&T.

The cost of EV-DO and 3G service has come down to the point where most CIOs see the benefit of providing mobile access to hundreds or thousands of employees. “Cost is not an issue,” Oligmueller says. “When I look at the salesforce being in front of customers and able to give them data on the spot, it’s worth the $50 a month that it costs.”

Outsource Partners Inc. (OPI), a New York financial and accounting outsourcing firm, has reaped savings by migrating 75 frequent-flyer U.S. consultants from Wi-Fi to Sprint Nextel’s high-speed EV-DO Rev A service.

“Most of them are specialists who travel site-to-site throughout the U.S. Typically they would rack up $110 to $120 a week in Internet fees at airports or hotels,” says CIO Glen Baker. “We’re spending $59 to $79 per month with Sprint. We’ve seen significant savings, and the bandwidth provided is more than adequate.”

Baker says Sprint’s mobile data cards have performed well for e-mail and for accessing client information stored at branch offices and the firm’s time-and-expense and Web-based conference-call scheduling systems.

Connectivity has been “very, very good,” Baker says. “I was one of the pilot users, and I was doing a lot of traveling. I even used it in Canada. We have yet to find an area where it hasn’t worked well.”

Baker says the reaction from users has been overwhelmingly positive. “I wish I could slow down the adoption rate,” he says. “The issue now is figuring out who needs it.”

Baker expects 100 of OPI’s 1,600 employees to have EV-DO service by year-end. As the technology gets faster, he foresees using mobile data for the company’s training videos rather than running them over LANs.

Baker’s advice to other CIOs is to test EV-DO at company and customer sites before buying it — and make sure to train users. “Have a good, solid telecommuting policy,” he recommends. “Once one person has it, someone else will say they want it also. You need to have a solid foundation for deciding who gets it and you need to allocate costs.”

EV-DO and other 3G technologies have picked up momentum in 2007 as carriers have rolled out coverage to all major U.S. metropolitan areas.

“From the evidence we’ve seen and the research we’ve done, there is absolutely a pent-up demand for 3G from enterprises,” says Mike O’Malley, director of eternal marketing for Tellabs, which sells mobile wireless equipment to carriers. “That’s because it offers Wi-Fi speeds or better, but unlimited roaming. People don’t want to walk from Starbucks to Starbucks for connectivity.”

Power users have been taking advantage of EV-DO and 3G for a few years, but it’s only in the last six months that enterprises have decided to buy mobile data cards in volume and roll them out to large blocks of employees. With these purchases, CIOs are trying to integrate mobile data back into their network resources in a standard, secure way.

“It used to be that companies were rolling out Wi-Fi globally and 3G to their top 50 executives to get them connected,” says Jim Szafranski, vice president of product management and marketing at Fiberlink. “Now it’s grown from an executive or departmental solution to the point where IT executives are saying they want to turn it on for all 20,000 of their users.”

At Adidas, “anybody in the organization who has a use for a BlackBerry, can have it,” Oligmueller says. “The sales people want BlackBerries. They don’t want to carry laptops because they are too heavy.”

One of the biggest benefits for companies is the improved productivity of employees. “There are two great things about a BlackBerry: It allows you to recapture nonproductive time, and it allows you to turn an eight-hour employee into a 10- or 15-hour employee. And the employee is happier than they were at eight hours,” Oligmueller says. “The wheel turns a lot smoother because everyone is available all of the time.”

“CFOs are saying they see 30% more work out of their employees when they give them a laptop,” Fiberlink’s Szafranski says. “It’s also good for business continuity. If you give people a laptop, they can keep working if there’s a snowstorm or a real disaster.”

Carriers are gearing up for continued growth in enterprise use of mobile data in 2008 and beyond. “There’s probably around three million EV-DO cards out there today, and there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million users of wireless,” says Tim Donahue, vice president of business marketing at Sprint. “There’s a great opportunity to proliferate this at a much higher level to other wireless users. . . . I don’t see any reason for this to slow down. We are still on the front end of this curve.”

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