Hands off my mobile enterprise

Don McCarthy has had the same cell phone mounted in his truck, although the truck has changed many times, for the past 15 years. McCarthy spent $1,200 on the Oki unit in 1989 when his then business partner told him that it would come in handy. Although phones today are often given away by vendors who are more concerned about the subscriber plan than the hardware, McCarthy sees no reason to get rid of a piece of equipment that “still works very well.” This doesn’t sound like a person that has immersed himself and his pest management business in the ever-evolving world of wireless technology. However, Braemar Pest Management Services, like many other organizations today, is not only realizing the benefits of a mobile enterprise but is refusing to live without it.

Wherefore art thou, wireless?

Before McCarthy introduced the Palm Treo 600 into his Nova Scotia-based business almost six months ago he was losing money continuously because of an activity essential to the survival of most organizations: phone calls. Braemar Pest Management Services employs 25 technicians in three provinces — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island — but all telephone calls requesting Braemar’s services are fielded through the head office in Bedford, N.S. Prior to the deployment of the Treo 600 the technicians all carried a pager and cell phone but, because they were often working in spaces that didn’t have cellular coverage, they were forced to call into the head office and speak with five different secretaries to ensure that they received all their messages.

If a technician were to call from out-of-town, he and the secretary would take time to not only discuss the messages but would also chat about the weather and family news, McCarthy explained.

“The next thing I know I am looking at five minutes minimum on phone calls three times a day. Double it because I have a secretary tied up, let alone a service technician….Now I am cranking out half a day,” McCarthy noted. “You start multiplying that by 25 technicians and I’m losing a week’s production a month.”

Braemar tried other enterprise-wide wireless handheld devices including Research In Motion (RIM) Ltd.’s popular BlackBerry, but in the end McCarthy said the Palm device, or what he calls the “silver berries” had everything the company desperately needed.

“The Treo 600 addresses all my problems. It has capabilities for a bar coding system, it has Web Internet if I want it…and it has text messaging back and forth,” McCarthy noted.

The Treo is what Braemar has been waiting years for, he added. “We knew it was coming; it was just a matter of time that our techs would be able to walk out with one [device] on their belts.”

Up until early 2003 freight management provider Manitoulin Transport, located in the tiny town of Gore Bay, Ont., had also been waiting for a mobile solution that would help keep its truck drivers connected to its dispatchers regardless of where they were in the country.

The biggest problem in Canada was that there wasn’t one single radio network that would cover the freight transport company from coast to coast, explained Dave Strachan, the on-board specialist for Manitoulin Transport. “Then along came Rogers with the GPRS (general packet radio service) network.”

As soon as the GPRS network became available, Strachan jumped on board. At that point the company started installing radios in its trucks, which were connected directly to an onboard computer used for messaging drivers about pick-ups and deliveries.

The company now has real-time information flowing from the cabs of the trucks directly to the back office, Strachan added. “The dispatcher does his normal work on the back office computer and it instantly goes out to the truck. He doesn’t have to jump on the radio or the cell phone and try to contact the driver. It has been a massive benefit to us for that.”

Although Manitoulin, like many large enterprises today, started its pathway to the mobile enterprise by issuing its employees cell phones, Strachan said such devices have one major drawback: someone has to answer them.

“If you’ve got 500 drivers out there and all of a sudden 100 of them call at once, we would need somebody to answer 100 calls,” Strachan noted. “We had to get away from voice and get onto data. Now it’s just back office to the truck….It’s a heck of a lot easier for everyone.”

Love at first sight?

A year-and-a-half ago IT managers still had a lot of complaints about “being burned” by wireless technologies, but today with the introduction of Wi-Fi hotspots and wireless LAN (WLAN) technology, the market is “exploding”, according to Dan Taylor, managing director of the Mobile Enterprise Alliance Inc. in Wakefield, Mass.

Traditionally it has been difficult for companies to figure out how they are going to pay for the new wireless infrastructure, Taylor admitted, “but the moment they get it, they realize they love it.”

The state of the economy has forced IT workers to be cautious when deciding to implement new technological solutions and very few of them have been willing to go out on a limb with technologies, especially with mobile and wireless, Taylor noted.

With Wi-Fi, and the new standards it brought along with it, the benefits of deploying a wireless network, especially at a campus level, appear to outweigh the risks and the costs, he added. The proof that wireless is solid and growing is in the numbers, according to Taylor.

Referring to statistics from the International Telecommunications Union, Taylor said 2003 was the first year the number of wireless subscribers equalled the number of wire line telephone subscribers. At the same time last year the revenues from mobile equalled the revenues for wire line.

“That is a tremendous thing,” Taylor said. “I have been in the telecom industry for 15 years and that’s probably one of the most dramatic things that has happened.”

Northern Lights Public School in Aurora, Ont., fell in love with the thought of a wireless school when it realized that the technology could not only change the way information is delivered but also how information is learned.

After writing a report entitled Information Technology and the Learner and speaking with various teachers and school administrators, Jim Forbes, the school’s principal, realized that his philosophy of technology in the classroom was supported by his research.

In the fall of 2003 Northern Lights was opened as an environment where access to portable computing was available and encouraged for both students and teachers. The school is equipped with a wireless infrastructure and supplies 10 to 12 laptops for every four classrooms. Also, last fall the school started a pilot project to equip many of its eighth-grade students with their own Tablet PCs to watch how they use the technology.

“Those of us that use technologies, we often assume that the other users will pick up and use the technology… and that doesn’t often happen,” Forbes explained.

One of the school’s main priorities is to replicate the Northern Lights program across the school system. Forbes said that too many times he has seen a good idea start in one area, only to die out when the people that were excited about the possibilities start to leave the school for other opportunities. “We have spent a lot of time looking at places all over North America that had put a significant amount of technology in [place] and what we saw was, for a certain period of time [these sites] were really exemplary, but then the momentum died down and it was not replicable in other schools across the district,” Forbes noted. Without a plan to replace the equipment or the technology-knowledgeable staff, the plan would fall apart, he added.

In order to make its own venture successful, Northern Lights put a plan in place to make sure wireless and mobile technologies will grow throughout its system. Teachers only stay at the school for three years; after that they are encouraged to move on and pass along the knowledge they learned about the devices and the best ways to use them in other areas.

“That will require commitment of those other schools,” Forbes said. “Rather than sending teachers out with their technology to work by themselves, we are going to ask for a commitment from those schools to say, ‘Yes, we are bringing these people on and yes, we have a plan about how we are going to use these teachers to work with the rest of the teachers in the school.’”

In the fast lane

We have only scratched the surface in figuring out ways to use mobile and wireless technologies within organizations, explained the Mobile Enterprise Alliance’s Taylor. Although there are thousands of companies that have deployed wireless in the enterprise today, there are still many that haven’t. Though companies are just starting to see the benefits of the technology as well as the price breaks on the hardware and software, it is still a very nascent market, Taylor added.

“In the wide-area market, RIM has about 1.3 million subscribers on the BlackBerry right now and they expect to have about 10 million by the end of this year,” he said, adding that this is still a very small number of workers given the potential number of users.

It will take more stories of successful implementations to make the mobile enterprise really take off, Taylor noted. “At the Mobile Enterprise Alliance our goal is to make certain that those barriers [to adoption] are as low as possible so that in five years from now we are not talking about mobility like it was the last great thing.”

For those companies that have taken a leap of faith in investing in a still immature market, most seem optimistic, even though it was not always smooth sailing.

Choppy waters

Because the GPRS system was new for Rogers when Manitoulin Transport signed on, Strachan said there were a few hiccups in the beginning trying to get the system up and running and keep it running. Although he noted that the problems were taken care of quickly, Strachan said he made a point to tell Rogers that if he had future problems, he would not wait in line for answers.

“I made it clear that I am not going to call the 1-800 line, be on hold for hours and get bumped to another phone number; I don’t have time for that,” Strachan said.

Rogers assigned an engineer to the freight transport company, which gave Strachan what he wanted — one person to speak with regardless of whether his problem was with billing, the network or the device.

“Right upfront when we first started this I didn’t realize there would be quite so many problems and issues just to get the thing switched on,” Strachan noted. “But now there are no problems. Would we get rid of the wireless? No way would we give it up.”

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