Wireless ROI drowns out hype

Gee-whiz wireless technology took a back seat to projects that quickly deliver bottom-line results at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) Wireless IT and Internet 2002 Conference in Las Vegas last fall.

Tom Wheeler, president and CEO of the Washington-based CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade association, kicked off the conference with a session focused on wireless projects that show a quick and demonstrable ROI. Gone was the emphasis on over-hyped technologies, such as mobile commerce, that have characterized past CTIA conferences.

Adel Al-Saleh, general manager of IBM Corp.’s Global Wireless e-business unit, said in his keynote speech that technology companies must demonstrate a clear ROI to customers planning to deploy wireless systems. To help them make these decisions, Al-Saleh said, IBM has developed a tool called the Wireless ROI Predictor, which helps calculate how quickly a customer can get a return on an initial project investment.

Bob Eardley, senior director of IT transformation solutions at Air Canada in Montreal, said he used the Wireless ROI Predictor before starting a project called e-Toolbox, which was designed to provide mechanics with wireless access to aircraft maintenance manuals and diagrams. The system runs on legacy systems housed on IBM 390 mainframes.

Eardley said Air Canada tested the e-Toolbox system last spring at the Montreal Dorval International Airport and plans to deploy it system-wide during the next 18 months.

He said e-Toolbox provides mechanics with quick access from the gate or tarmac to the information they need to make an aircraft repair, which in turn results in fewer cancellations, improved material management, better maintenance planning and an increase in productivity. Eardley estimates that the system will “return benefits in the millions of dollars a year.”

IBM, which has a long-term strategic relationship with Air Canada, developed a Web-based viewer that allows line mechanics to quickly access the legacy data, Eardley said.

The mechanics access the data over industry-standard 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, wireless connections from rugged PCs housed in the cabs of their vehicles. All data sent over the LAN is encrypted, Eardley said, adding that Air Canada and IBM are working on another project to add digital signatures to the job orders that mechanics complete.

IBM and Air Canada plan to sell e-Toolbox to other air carriers, a move Eardley believes has a good chance of success, since few carriers have mastered the problem of remotely accessing legacy data.

Although e-Toolbox required complex integration with back-end systems, Citigroup Inc. in New York found that tapping into the simplest form of wireless data – Short Messaging Service (SMS) messages of 160 characters or less – can provide a quick ROI. Alan Young, vice-president of emerging technology at Citigroup’s corporate technology office, said customers in Poland were overwhelming the company’s call centres twice a month to check on whether their pay cheques had been deposited.

Young said the financial services and products firm couldn’t afford to adjust staffing at the call centres on a daily basis to handle such spikes, so the company worked with Oracle Corp. to develop an SMS alert feature that delivers customer balances daily. The approach was made easier by heavy penetration of wireless technology in Poland and the fact that all Polish carriers adhere to the Global System for Mobile Communications standard.

After launching the bank balance service in Poland, Citigroup rolled it out in India, another country where balance inquiries threatened to overwhelm call centres.

The bottom line, said Young, is a significant savings. Citigroup receives 1.5 million calls per day from customers worldwide. “Answering each of those calls costs dollars,” Young said, whereas the cost of sending an SMS message is measured in cents.