The challenges for today’s information workers are constant, whether they’re in the office, on the road, or in the field. Regardless of their location, these employees often need instant access to corporate databases to be most effective. Wireless
access makes that happen.
Take the case of Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp., a joint federal-provincial crown corporation that provides yield and hail insurance to Saskatchewan producers. The organization insures more than 33,000 producers and 24 million acres, bringing
in $186 million in premium intake, and providing $1.5 billion in liability coverage.
When the corporation’s adjusters are in the field, they are quite literally out there in the farmer’s waving wheat. About 300 adjusters work out of 21 rural offices. Traditionally, they visit a farm to fill out paper forms, and then submit claims in person to the office. If there’s any problem with information gathered, the adjuster may make another visit to the farm. Such delays can mean a lengthy wait for farmers in need of cash.
About 70 adjusters are now handling claims wirelessly, using Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) technology. “Wireless is the ultimate in providing our customers with service and accuracy,” says Terry Dingle, executive manager of information technology.
During a farm visit, the adjuster enters the information on-line via a notebook computer (or sometimes a handheld), communicating wirelessly with the head office AS/400, using 5250 emulation. “Since we are accessing existing applications and database, we do not have the added expense of additional developers and testers that would be required to write and maintain an off-line application and the associated database,” says Dingle.
The information is transmitted wirelessly through Sasktel’s cellular network to the notebook, and received by an AirCard (PC card) from Sierra Wireless Inc. According to Dingle, that means fewer transposition errors and fewer returns to the farm.
The goal, he says, is to calculate indemnity and get money paid as quickly as possible. After keying in the data, the adjuster is able to provide the amount of indemnity to the farmer. A cheque is often printed within a few days, or if the farmer has signed up for direct deposit, the money could be available the very next day.
In 2000, approximately two per cent of the 34,000 claims were handled wirelessly. The goal for this year is 15 per cent, and 50 per cent by 2003, says Dingle.
Taking Care of Tenant Needs
Wireless networks are proving invaluable for service applications. For instance, Oxford Properties Group has equipped 600 service staff with Research in Motion Blackberry units, handling 1,000 tenant requests per day and covering 90 buildings (29.6 million square feet) in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary
and Vancouver, according to Stephen Smith, vice-president of 310-maxx, Oxford’s customer service division. Data travels via an 8Kbps Mobitex wireless data network.
With the wireless project, widely implemented just over a year ago, Oxford was addressing three identified areas of low tenant satisfaction: ease of contact, response time in dealing with a request, and the track record in resolving requests.
Tenants can submit a service request (to change a light bulb or adjust temperature, for instance) at www.310-maxx.com or by phoning the call centre, where staff input the request into the system. Service items are then routed to technicians’ Blackberry devices.
The technician enters a code to indicate receipt of the message, and subsequently indicates arrival at the job and completion of the task. With wireless updates, Oxford is able to post real-time status information on the tenant Web site.
Oxford has managed to reduce staffing in the call centre from 30 people to 24, and has also cut down on response times. For instance, 90 per cent of phone calls are answered within 10 seconds. And requests are handled within 30 minutes, 88 per cent of the time, says Smith.
Of interest, because technicians are often working in basements and other areas inhospitable to wireless coverage, in about one-third of its buildings, Oxford
has implemented technology (extra antennas and wiring to boost the signals) from Markham, Ont.-based Kaval Wireless Technologies Inc. to minimize dead space. Indeed, Smith recommends that companies considering wireless be aware that there may be areas where signals are not strong.
Toronto Cops Get Wireless Access
The Toronto Police Department will soon be using a proprietary 19.2Kbps Motorola wireless technology called Radio Data Link Access Procedure (RD-LAP) to support its police information system. The implementation starts this fall, and the wireless technology will facilitate communication between IBM’s DB2 database and ruggedized Panasonic notebooks in the patrol cars, explains Inspector Mike Farrar.
Indeed, 450 police cars will be so-equipped by Q3 2002, according to the plan. Subsequently (in the 2003-2004 timeframe), handheld units will also be provided to give wireless access to police databases to officers on foot-patrol, bikes, horses, motorcycles or boats.
Farrar is the team leader on the project (which includes a 25-person development team), but technical staff report to Larry Stinson, director of information technology services.
The wireless technology is just one component of eCOPS (Enterprise Case and Occurrence Processing System), which will replace some legacy systems, including aging mobile data terminals in the police cars. Because of reduced data entry by clerical staff, the $18.6 million project – $8.6 million on software development and $10 million on the mobile
data network and access devices – is expected to pay for itself in four years,
and then save $4.8 million annually in clerical salaries.
“Do your homework,” Farrar says, by way of advice to other organizations planning to go wireless. Indeed, the eCOPS development project was launched after requests for information and proposals failed to produce a system that exactly met police goals for mobility, scalability and security. “We bet the farm on this,” says Farrar. However, he says the Toronto Police are in discussion with other security agencies in regards to remarketing the solution. “We’re not a software company,” says Farrar. “But if I can create a win-win opportunity, I’m authorized and willing to engage in discussion.”
Other organizations are tapping into satellite. For instance, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has announced it will equip ships to distribute Internet access to IBM Internet appliances in employees’ cabins. According to Jack Williams, president of Royal Caribbean International, “Providing the cabin crew, many of whom spend up to six months at a time at sea, with the ability to e-mail home, take supplemental training courses and use basic office software in the comfort and privacy of their cabin, will enable them to stay connected, both personally and professionally.”
Enabling the Wireless LAN
Some organizations opt to cover a building or campus with a wireless technology called 802.11 – generally a wireless extension of the existing corporate LAN. There are no connection fees to be paid for this bandwidth.
And while cellular technology is comparatively slow (19.2Kbps for CDPD), 802.11b offers a speedy 11Mbps. However, 802.11 is shared access, so the bandwidth available to any particular user at a given time depends on the number of
users active on the network.
On the southern shore of Lake Oka-nagan, B.C., the Penticton Lakeside Resort and Casino provides staff and guests with access to an 802.11b wireless network (for $15 per day). The hotel provides network cards to guests who don’t have them, and will install the necessary software. “We’re providing them with a portable way of accessing high-speed Internet or their virtual private network,” says Aaron Ruggaber, director of purchasing.
The “download” 3Mbps Internet service is via satellite, and the “upload” connects to a land-based ADSL line (140Kbps), says Ruggaber. That’s distributed throughout the resort by the Avaya 802.11b wireless network. The access apparently extends throughout the resort, excluding the casino, but including
the beach. In fact, the hotel even used
the network to download films from the Internet and play them on a floating barge, during the Beach Blanket Film Festival. Ruggaber says access reaches “the conference center, the patios, the lawn, the beach, and half-a-mile onto the lake.”
With 10 antennas on the property, capacity is up to 500 simultaneous users, says Ruggaber.
In the future, the wireless network could expand guest services to allow a private check-in feature, for instance, “so guests are not standing in line. That flexibility would be remarkable.” Also, Ruggaber hopes to connect POS devices to the wireless network, so they can be moved around the property as needed for special events.
Ruggaber notes: “For the next couple of years it will be an added amenity, but soon high-speed wireless Internet access is going to be a standard amenity.”
Indeed, the Saskatoon Travelodge Hotel recently announced an 802.11b network that distributes Shaw Communications’ high-speed cable Internet access
to guests and convention participants. Travellers install software and a 3Com wireless LAN PC card in their notebooks to conduct business anywhere in the facility, including hotel rooms, conference rooms, restaurant or poolside. The age and structure of the hotel reportedly made a wired network cost-prohibitive, and the related construction would have been an unacceptable disruption.
While 802.11b has gained a foothold for corporate wireless, a successor is just rolling out in the marketplace – 802.11a, promising speeds of 54Kbps. (In most circles, “a” comes before “b”. In this case, both standards were set about three and a half years ago, but it took considerably longer for the faster standard, “a”, to come to market, explains Kelly Kanellakis, director of technology for Enterasys Networks in Toronto.)
Enterasys Networks was one of the first companies to launch an 802.11a offering – specifically the RoamAbout R2 wireless access platform that hooks into the wired LAN, supporting both 802.11a and 802.11b wireless products. The reach of the technology may theoretically be as much as 20 miles with the right antenna, but practically it’s usually about 100 meters per antenna, he says.
John Williams, director of data sales at Avaya in Toronto says 802.11b’s range is generally about 500 to 1,100 feet, but with extra antennas can reach to 3,000 feet. He says Avaya has thousands of Canadian customers for 802.11b, and the company will soon announce 802.11a networking products. However, he expects the range of 802.11a will be shorter, as the higher bandwidth allows for more possibility of interference at long distances. But he predicts that 802.11a networks will increase the adoption of wireless voice-over-IP and video stream applications.
SFU Evaluates 802.11a
Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., plans to evaluate the 802.11a technology. “The demand for bandwidth is certainly there,” says Burkhard Kraas, supervisor of network operations.
The school is already an adopter of 802.11b. Installed late last year, the wireless coverage reaches across 30,000 square feet on campus, including the teacher education building (the Ed-Building). A couple of hundred faculty and
student teachers roam around with notebooks in that building’s classrooms, study spaces and even the patios. “It’s a great tool for teachers; they just take the laptop and go into a classroom. It’s more flexible for different situations and settings,” says Kraas.
Meanwhile, the university is also running a pilot project in a business education building (the West Mall Complex), where about 25 students are provided with Enterasys 802.11b network cards. The goal is to continue to expand the
wireless effort as a cost-effective alternative to providing more systems in
the computer labs. “We’re under budget constraints,” says Kraas. “We want to
encourage students to bring their own laptops.”
However, he doesn’t think wireless will ever entirely replace the wired network. “I would not say everything will be wireless.” For instance, certain medical applications in use at the university already require terabytes of bandwidth, he says. And there are challenges with wireless coverage. “Concrete is a factor, but it’s not as bad as tinted windows. And there are shadows, areas where the signals don’t penetrate. You have to position the access points carefully.”
Meanwhile, wireless signals pass easily through ceilings, he says, which can necessitate security procedures, encryp-tion and passwords. “Wireless sounds easy, but there are a lot of parameters to be considered.”
However, with “military”-level encryp-tion technology, wireless networks can be as secure as wired networks, says Avaya’s Williams.
But Hatim Zaghloul, chairman and CEO of Calgary-based Wi-LAN Inc., notes there will always be security concerns, both with wireless and wired networks. He points out: “There’s nothing one engineer can create that another can’t break. No security system can not be broken into. We can just make it very difficult to break.”
Bluetooth: Unwiring the Personal Area Network
A technology called Bluetooth is meant to ease communication between devices, replacing cables linking, for instance, cell phones to notebooks, handhelds or headsets, and computers and printers.
With a wireless headset, users can give voice commands to communicate with a cell phone as much as 10 metres away (in a briefcase, or on a belt) – technology already available via Ericsson, for instance.
“Where it’s of great value is getting rid of the frustrating experience of plugs and cables,” says David Neale, vice-president of new product development for Rogers AT&T Wireless Inc. in Toronto.
The standard was apparently named after Harald Bluetooth, a 10th century king who united Denmark and Norway. The radio standard allows for wireless transmission between devices within a small area, and is managed by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group consortium of companies. Proponents say that within two years, Bluetooth compliance should add only $5 to the cost of a device.
“Bluetooth is meant to be an inexpensive radio replacement for infrared, for short-range communications,” says Wi-Lan’s Zaghloul. Products with infrared ports must be lined up rather precisely. Bluetooth, in contrast, uses radio technology with a multidirectional signal. A Bluetooth-supporting device will recognize all other Bluetooth devices in its vicinity, and the owner of a product has the option of allowing other devices in the area to be added to that personal network.
While products are starting to hit the market, they’re far from the US$5 incremental price originally proposed by Bluetooth proponents. At time of writing, for instance, the IBM Bluetooth PC card for notebook computers retailed for $279.
The Motorola Timeport 270 is scheduled to ship in August or September, available with an optional Bluetooth accessory and PC card, to allow for wireless communication with a notebook computer at up to 30 metres. According to Stephen Orr, director of sales for the Motorola Personal Communications Section, the Bluetooth phone accessory should be less than $200, or $400 when bundled with the PC card. Orr says the technology needs to reach “critical mass” before the price drops.
“Bluetooth devices form small independent networks,” says Orr. He anticipates all kinds of devices could soon be Bluetooth-enabled, from headsets to vending machines. He envisions a day when “everything connects to everything else, and I don’t have to get involved.”
Chris Scatliff leads the wireless initiatives at itemus inc., a business and technology incubator in Toronto. The former president and CEO of UUNet Canada predicts various wireless technologies will soon “blend together.”
“We’ll seamlessly move from one to the next; many people won’t really know what they’re using,” says Scatliff. “In a 10-year time frame, I predict you will see bridge technologies start to emerge. Devices will be smart enough to sense what’s out there and connect to seek authorization.”
Faster Cellular on the Way
Cellular technologies are notoriously slow for data transmission, with speeds ranging from about 9.6 to 19.2 Kbps, depending on the type of cellular technology in use. However, those are always theoretical speeds, and at least some bandwidth gets eaten up by transmitting operational data instructions, commonly referred to as “overhead”. Users should always expect more modest results in real-world applications.
Nonetheless, carriers are ramping up their networks, and phone manufacturers are producing handsets that support 2.5G (“G” is for generation and the .5 indicates “half” a leap to the next generation of phone technology.)
The official speed 2.5G is 144Kbps.
For cost reasons, however, carriers may very well make only 40Kbps or so available to users. “That’s still two or three times better than what we have today,” says Jeff Morris, director of marketing for Sierra Wireless Inc. in Vancouver. The company already has working prototypes for 2.5G.
Rogers AT&T will ship 2.5G phones in Canada later this year – for the GSM General Packet Radio Services (GPRS) market (those phones will also support Bluetooth). GSM’s 2.5G is rated at 115Kbps, but Neale says PDA users should probably expect to get about 56Kbps.
“The significance for a corporate user with a 2.5G system is getting much more information out to a device much more quickly,” says Orr. “It’s close to the desktop experience, out to a wireless device. It’s a large step in terms of increased bandwidth.”
According to Scatliff, this means wireless applications will soon handle a lot more data. For instance, workers will use handhelds to quickly download RFPs or even to view a security camera’s live feed. Moreover, he anticipates a great deal more in the way of wireless service force automation and work collaboration.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) specifications,
3G technology will offer speeds of at least 144Kbps to travelling vehicles, at least 384Kbps to pedestrians outdoors, and at least 2.48Mbps in indoor office environments.
While the 3G technology may be technically available in Canada within a year or so, Neale says he expects it will take longer to come to market, primarily for cost reasons. “I anticipate 2.5G services will last longer than people are expecting.”
Grace Casselman is a freelance writer specializing in information technology and
IT management. She is based in Calgary.