Making wireless less wild

Wayne Murray’s colleagues at the Canadian Coast Guard are trained to capture speeding boaters and stop poachers from stealing. But despite their know-how in the business of restraint, Murray says the water-savvy officers need a lesson in how to hold on to their mobile phones.

“We have a lot of loss,” he said during an interview with Network World Canada at Expo Comm Canada’s Communications 2002, a technology conference held in Toronto earlier this month. Murray explained that certain on-the-job perils make handset retention difficult for his work mates. “We have a lot of officers running through water after poachers and such.”

Murray also said he suspects officers sometimes “lose” their phones on purpose to get newer units from headquarters.

Whatever the reason for the butter-finger situation, Murray said it’s no small task managing the 400-odd handsets his colleagues carry. In his capacity as regional supervisor, network services with the Coast Guard in Sarnia, Ont., Murray’s in charge of not only sourcing new handsets every time officers lose their phones to the waves, but he’s also called upon to make big decisions regarding mobile connectivity.

People like Murray face a wall of questions every time they source wireless service. What devices should they buy? Which carrier should they employ? What sorts of features do users require? How much will service cost?

John Lawrence has some answers. A Toronto-based director with Gartner Inc., Lawrence presented solutions for wireless device management during a presentation at Communications 2002.

“For most enterprises, controlling cost is still a major issue,” Lawrence said. He pointed out that in a typical enterprise with 4,000 employees, 1,000 of the workers have company-sponsored mobile phones. With a price tag of $2,200 per handset each year – including the cost of maintenance, airtime and replacement when necessary – wireless connectivity averages an annual cost of $2.2 million in the workplace.

“That has to be managed,” Lawrence said. “People have to look at that money and make sure it’s used effectively.”

Cost management options include optimized carrier packages, wherein service providers offer discount handset prices, feature-rich devices and management software in an attempt to win enterprise business. This scenario requires the enterprise to leverage its size against cost: convince the carrier that your company’s business is worth the discount.

Lawrence also said companies might consider negotiating aggregated billing deals with service providers, such that an enterprise pays a flat per-minute airtime rate, but no monthly fees.

Watch for group calling packages, Lawrence said. Group calling lets colleagues on the same wireless network contact each other at a discounted per-minute rate. Telus Mobility’s Mike service offers this feature, he said.

Consider giving users not handsets, but allowances to purchase the devices of their choice. In this case, users, rather than in-office IT experts, take charge of device management, Lawrence said.

That suggestion struck a chord with Murray. “I like this idea of users getting allowances,” he said, explaining that officers might be more careful with their handsets if they were invested in the decision-making process.

In the Coast Guard’s case, it’s relatively easy for Murray to figure out what kind of device works best. Officers need voice connectivity more than e-mail or short message service (SMS), so standard mobile phones likely do the job.

But others don’t have it so easy, Lawrence said. Some companies face a dizzying array of form factors – a field of choice that grows more confounding as technology marches on.

Should an enterprise opt for the stalwart mobile phone, or perhaps a personal digital assistant (PDA)? What about those “smart phones” that look like cell phones but incorporate PDA functionality? Perhaps the flip-side hybrid – the PDA with voice functions – is the answer.

Lawrence said the decision depends on the user. Assess her requirements and consider what she does at work. Does she require frequent e-mail access? If so, perhaps something like Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry fits the bill. If she’s often talking to clients while on the road, a mobile phone seems to make sense. If she’s equally partial to e-mail and voice, one of the hybrids might do the trick.

Lawrence said hybrid devices complicate wireless management. For instance, if a device receives both data and voice transmissions, does it fall under data management, or is it the voice manager’s concern?

“The problem is, historically up to this point it’s been left unmanaged,” said Lawrence. In the end, it’s up to the enterprise to decide who’s in charge of what – just so long as the enterprise makes a decision one way or another.

“You’re going to have to take some risks,” he said, explaining that it’s difficult to find the right combination of features, shape and service to satisfy users’ needs during a company’s preliminary wireless management project.

The City of Mississauga, Ont., just west of Toronto, is about to embark on a mobile management project of its own, said Mary Mayo, a project leader of the untethered try. The City’s bylaw enforcement officers and building inspectors would benefit from mobile computing, she said. If they carried PDAs loaded with bylaw information, officers would have at hand the information needed to enforce the rules.

Mayo said the project is complicated, but concerns about the undertaking stem from fear of the unknown, rather than problems with wireless technology.

“The technology is there. What’s made it complicated is…different comfort levels with technology,” Mayo said. She pointed out that some users are partial to the City’s ageing desktop software and insist any wireless application should match the incumbent program. Others are loath to give up their low-tech ways, preferring the well-worn paper trail.

Mayo’s cure for reluctance: “Start with the keen users,” she said, “young guys really receptive to the technology. Have them work through the kinks.”

High-tech enthusiasm will spread throughout the organization thanks to these early adopters, Mayo said, adding that although it’s important to start with the keeners, it’s just as important to “involve all the users from the beginning. Let them know what’s going on.”