Blazing trails with wireless

Employees at Bartec Fire Safety Systems Ltd. feel the heat every day in their field. The company competes against countless other safety equipment maintenance firms; any advantage could mean the difference between winning a contract and burning out.

Speed – timely checks on extinguishers, sprinklers and alarms – is the name of the game, and technology designed to urge the process certainly comes in handy. Bartec opted for wireless connectivity to increase efficiency for its roving equipment inspectors. The decision had a profoundly positive effect on the firm, said Rob Barrett, Bartec’s owner and operator in Burnaby, B.C.

“We had to save 15 minutes per day, per man,” he said, explaining the goal of going mobile. But the system has performed beyond expectations. In terms of time savings, “we’re averaging an hour or two a day.”

Wireless helps Bartec’s employees complete their jobs faster than ever before. At the start of 2003, they started to carry mobile phones and portable PCs to job sites. Connecting the handsets to the computers, the inspectors access work orders without having to return to HQ. At the end of each client visit, they fill out reports on screen and e-mail information back to Barrett.

He’s very happy with the system. Only a few weeks into the new regime, Bartec has discovered time savings that affect the entire customer service chain. “The whole process is shortened substantially,” Barrett said.

Doing more, faster

Behind the company’s newfound efficiency is Telus Mobility’s CDMA2000 1XRTT (“1X”) network, a collection of towers and antennas that transports data at approximately 60Kbps.

This carrier – along with Canada’s other major wireless service providers Bell Mobility, Microcell Telecommunications Inc. (operating “Fido”) and Rogers AT&T Wireless – offers up Bartec as a good omen. Businesses across the country will follow suit with similar outside workforce management schemes based on fast mobile connections, they say.

“It will help people do more, and do it faster,” said Pierre Blouin, Bell Mobility’s president and CEO when the firm turned on its 1X network last February. “It will make communicating open and interactive…more personal.”

But so far carriers offer only a few illustrations of corporate Canada’s love affair with mobility. In fact, wireless industry analysts and observers say various hurdles keep corporations from employing deep-seated mobile solutions:

    Just a handful of application vendors offer wireless products, said Warren Chaisatien, a telecom analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. “If you want to mobilize a suite of applications, you can’t do that today.”Squeezed IT budgets mean companies have an uphill battle justifying the cost of wireless, said Norm Korey, vice-president and general manager, wireless services with IBM Corp. in Somers, N.Y. “The economic struggle around making investments for all enterprises is a difficult proposition.”Competing technologies engender a wait-and-see mindset. Consider 802.11, a wireless protocol that could supplant 1X-style networks. 802.11 is for wireless LANs. It’s becoming popular at airports, restaurants and train stations. In time, Bartec’s inspectors would need only drop by the nearest Starbucks to download work orders and report forms.

Despite certain hindrances, however, some Canadian companies have signed on for wide-area wireless service. According to these early adopters, high-speed mobile solves problems previously insurmountable for the enterprise.

Traditionally, companies like Bartec lose time in daily details, Barrett said. Employees would begin their day at headquarters, where they collected work orders and report forms. In Bartec’s case, eight inspectors go from the main office to visit customers, check fire safety equipment and write down what they see.

Under the normal course of events, Bartec’s inspectors would return to the office at day’s end and fork over reports. Bartec processes these small studies and, in turn, sends them to clients, telling them what’s required in terms of safety system maintenance and repair.

Before going wireless, it was a cumbersome process, Barrett said. “A job a technician finishes at 10 in the morning, on the old system, we wouldn’t see the paperwork until the next morning if we were lucky. And the invoices wouldn’t go out until the next night.”

Part of the problem was travel time. If Bartec’s employees could somehow forward completed reports to HQ without having to visit the main office, they’d shave precious minutes from the process.

Turning to Telus

Enter Telus Mobility. The firm presented Bartec with a multifaceted high-tech solution that included Audiovox Corp. 8300 mobile phones. Barrett chose ViewSonic Corp. tablet PCs to round out the platform. So armed, inspectors could download work orders and report forms while travelling, thereby negating a time-consuming trip back to the office at the end of each job.

Although some companies might wait for 802.11 to proliferate before deciding which technology is right for them, Bartec wasn’t likely to hold its horses. After all, Barrett said he envisioned something along the lines of the company’s Telus-enabled system a decade ago. He’s been waiting ever since for carriers to offer proper service.

“We’ve been looking at it for 10 years, but they didn’t have the technology to do it.” But now that Telus offers downloads akin to the wireline dial-up world, “it takes me less time to send a technician a work order over the Internet than it does to print the work order up in my office,” Barrett said.

Bartec chose Telus Mobility for a simple, but important, reason: “Coverage. We work all over the province. They were the only ones that had the coverage that we felt we needed….”

“We were with Fido originally for our cell phones. The coverage was great for (Vancouver’s) lower mainland (area)…but it’s not as strong on Vancouver Island and pretty much non-existent in the (B.C.) interior. Because of our contracts, we’re all over the lower mainland, the island, plus up in the interior. I didn’t want a system that was partial. Cost is always a consideration, but it wasn’t as high a priority as coverage.”

Cost did factor into another decision: equipment. Bartec could have purchased wireless network interface cards that slide into the computer, but chose the Audiovox handsets as modems instead.

Why not the more integrated option? “We would have had to buy the card, which was $500.” How much was the phone? “$29,” Barrett laughed, adding that unlike the data-only interface card, the handset offers both voice and data connectivity, so he can call inspectors and talk to them if required.

Cookin’ up a wireless plan

The folks at Cara Operations Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont. also chose a multi-device platform for their wireless system. According to John Thompson, manager, information systems for Harvey’s, the fast food chain, the company’s 25 area managers carry Motorola Inc. handsets and BlackBerry e-mail devices from Research In Motion Ltd.

“We really wanted to get the managers off of laptops,” Thompson said, explaining that area managers need quick access to e-mail on the go, but not necessarily the pricey portable PCs. “Laptops are expensive and they’re not as robust as people think they are. We wanted to improve efficiency, but also save costs.”

Thompson did the math. Each portable PC cost Cara approximately $4,000 to purchase in the first place. Then came the maintenance costs. “Each year we would have at least three or four get stepped on or stolen out of someone’s car,” he said.

The new equipment is much less expensive. Cara furnished area managers with desktop computers, $1,500 apiece. The BlackBerries cost $500 and the phones were free with an airtime contract. Rogers AT&T Wireless is the carrier of choice here.

“We were using the Mobitex network in the beginning, but we found it wasn’t as effective for the northern areas,” Thompson said. “When you started getting out of the big cities, we lost connections. We switched to this new network with Rogers and the connectivity was there. That was really a big win.”

Going global

Rogers’ new network is based on Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) technology and data-enhanced with General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). This GSM/GPRS infrastructure is somewhat different from the code division multiple access (CDMA) technology underlying Telus Mobility’s network, but similar in that both systems transport data at about 40Kbps to 60Kbps.

GSM is more popular than CDMA, which Bell Mobility also uses in its network. That Rogers employed the so-called “global” infrastructure gives the carrier a leg up as far as Cara is concerned. Area managers travel only from franchise to franchise to check up on stores, but some of the company’s executives go further afield in their work.

“The difference was the GSM network,” Thompson said. “I can send this phone and this BlackBerry to England and they’ll work. I can go to Taiwan and keep connected. I can go anywhere in the United States. We were looking for that global connection. Bell doesn’t offer that.”

Thompson said the area managers have embraced the technology.

“In our system, the average area manager might get 50 [e-mails] a day. All the restaurants would be writing him, or he’d be getting messages from the office. The issue is, he’s on the road the whole day. He comes home, turns his computer on and there’s 50 e-mails sitting there waiting for him. Now he’s got to sit for two more hours to answer them.

“Now that we’ve put the technology in their hands, they feel like they know what’s going on in their lives during the day. It’s a quality of life improvement.”

Back at Bartec, Barrett said the Telus Mobility system proved its worth on the first day, a particularly rough one for Mike Matthews. The inspector’s alarm didn’t go off the morning of Jan. 3 and he was late already at 8:15 a.m. But Matthews was armed with the Audiovox phone and a computer, so he accessed his work order from home and set out. Barrett figures the technology saved Matthews an hour.

Add to that the 1.5 hours saved when Matthews e-mailed his work order from the field and went to job number two, as well as the hour Matthews would have worked overtime travelling to and from the office all day, and Barrett calculates man-hour savings well beyond 15 minutes.

“We’re saving money like crazy, way beyond our expectations.”