Jerry Webster admits he doesn’t know a lot about the intricacies of mobile wireless data technology. Nor is he accustomed to finding himself on the leading edge of any technology wave.
But Webster, vice president of service delivery at Toronto-based GetronicsWang, a computer hardware repair company, is using wireless data as an integral part of a new customer service system that is both pleasing customers and saving Getronics a boat-load of money on long distance charges. Webster says it was surprisingly easy to deploy too.
Mobile wireless data is a technology that has been on the verge of breaking into the business mainstream for several years. Now, fuelled by interest in new services and products for wirelessly connecting to the Internet – to do everything from e-mail to online banking – there are signs it may finally make it.
Cahners In-Stat Group, a Newton MA research firm, reported recently that 49 per cent of 500 business users surveyed said they would wirelessly access the Net “several times a day” – when they got around to subscribing to a service. And 40 per cent would be willing to pay $25 U.S. or more a month for such a service.
The Strategis Group, a Washington DC researcher, says the number of wireless e-mail users will grow from 5.6 million in 1998 to nearly 48 million by 2004.
The Getronics application, however, does not involve accessing the Net wirelessly, but it does use a wireless data technology that has been around for over three years, ever since the emergence of the first digital PCS cellular phone services. The company is using the text messaging or SMS (short message service) capability of Microcell Solutions’ Fido PCS phone service.
The Internet is involved, however. Getronics decided last year to follow in the footsteps of FedEx and other dispatch-centric organizations and use the Net to let customers find out for themselves the status of their service calls. They can now log into a secure Web site to get the information.
“There’s a huge benefit to customers,” Webster says. “Because the information is there and they can see it on the Net whenever they want, they’re more comfortable working with us. And it cuts down on the number of phone calls they have to make to us.”
But to make the system work, the company had to find a more efficient way to gather call status information from 250 field technicians across the country. The system needs to know if a technician is able to accept a dispatched assignment, when he expects to arrive at the customer site, when he actually arrives, when he leaves, and whether he resolved the problem.
In the past, the technicians called a national toll-free number and gave this information verbally to the company’s central dispatch center, which kept track of it and relayed it to customers if they called. Getronics looked at a number of ways to automate the information gathering, including equipping technicians with laptop or handheld computers.
But in the end it settled on giving them PCS phones. The hardware was cheaper – $100 per technician compared to at least $400 or $500 for a handheld computer. The technicians themselves felt phones would be more convenient and useful. The clincher was the paging-like text messaging function – SMS – provided as part of Fido and other PCS services.
PCS carriers transmit text messages of up to 160 words from a dedicated SMS server over their cellular network’s digital signaling channel, the channel used for call set up and network management functions. Messages show up automatically on the receiving subscriber’s handset display, provided the person is in range of the digital network. Fido also lets subscribers send SMS messages from their handsets.
Getronics makes clever use of this capability. Technicians store five canned text messages in their phones, related to the key bits of information that dispatchers, and customers, need. When technicians get a dispatch, for example – which they still receive on separate paging units but will eventually receive on their Fido handsets – they respond by sending the canned message saying they can or cannot accept the assignment, adding the work- order number from the dispatch to identify it. It takes only a few seconds.
The message goes to Getronics headquarters, to a Fido phone attached to a PC. Webster says one of the company’s cleverer programmers spent less than two weeks figuring out how to get the phone to automatically upload text messages to the PC. The PC, in turn, accesses the company’s call management system software over a LAN and, using the work- order number from the SMS message, updates the call record. That same record is accessible by customers via the Web, and because of the automated updating by technicians it’s always up to date.
“The text messaging is a nice feature,” Webster observes. “There are no service charges and no long-distance charges. The guy in Vancouver can get the same service as the guy in Toronto.”
Webster estimates the new system is saving the company about 70 to 80 per cent on its long distance bill. Each of the 250 technicians makes about four service calls a day. In the past, they would phone the national 1-800 number three or four times in the course of completing a call. Some still make phone calls if they’re out of Fido range, but most long distance calling has been eliminated.
The system also saves the technician the time and inconvenience of finding a phone to use at a customer’s site, making the call and talking to a dispatcher.
Big Companies Still Holding Back
Service and equipment suppliers in the fledgling mobile data industry claim wireless applications like Getronics’ that solve enterprise communications problems are becoming more common. The fact is, though, it’s still early days for mobile data, despite the fact SMS has been around for three years and wireless packet data services – Mobitex from Rogers Cantel and ARDIS from Bell Mobility – much longer. Few big companies are taking advantage of it yet. Early adopters are more apt to be entrpreneurs, especially in the high-tech sector.
There are still significant hold-backs for users. Throughput in wireless networks ranges from a paltry 9.6 to 14.4 kilobits per second (Kbps). Another factor is the size of displays in wireless phones, pagers and other terminal devices. They’re not big enough to display Web pages or even long e-mails.
But the potential for significant benefit is there. And new products and tools – smart phones with larger displays and easier-to-use keypads, wirelessly connectible PDAs such as the 3Com Palm VII, small-footprint wireless Web browsers and connection kits that turn a PCS phone into a digital modem – will make service provider offerings even more useful in future.
Furthermore, data throughput in wireless networks could improve dramatically, starting in a year to 18 months, as carriers evolve toward so-called G3, or third-generation broadband wireless technology.
Meanwhile, the simplest and easiest to use of the current services is follow-me e-mail. Most PCS carriers in Canada have launched e-mail services using SMS. And Rogers Cantel and Research In Motion (RIM), a Waterloo, Ontario-based company, have both launched sophisticated wireless mes-saging services using the Mobitex packet data network.
What they all have in common is that subscribers don’t have to dial up to get their e-mail. The service provider sends messages out automatically as they’re received – the PCS phone is always connected as long as it’s powered on.
There are a number of ways to get messages out to wireless subscribers. Senders can use their regular e-mail system and transmit a message to the subscriber’s PCS e-mail address – usually a combination of PCS phone number and service provider domain name: for example, [email protected].
In some cases, they can go to the service provider’s Web page and fill out a form with a message and the subscriber’s phone number and click a Send button.
Most carriers now offer e-mail relay services in which they periodically poll subscribers’ regular e-mail accounts, extract messages and send them to the wireless device. And some let big customers connect directly to their SMS servers via a dial-up or dedicated connection and send messages, including broadcast messages, out to employees.
Retail pricing for text messaging is fairly consistent. Bell Mobility charges $5 per month per subscriber, with 100 free messages, and 10 cents for additional messages. Clearnet and Rogers Cantel pricing is virtually identical, although Cantel charges an additional $3 per month for an e-mail address. Microcell is the price leader, charging just $2 per month for unlimited messages.
One downside of SMS e-mail systems is that PCS phones don’t have enough data storage capacity to save a large number of messages in the phone. And it’s not always possible to set up the system so messages received at the PCS phone are also stored on a corporate e-mail server. Result: subscribers may actually have to transcribe messages to paper sometimes and then delete them from the phone to make room for new incoming messages.
Another downside is the limit on the number of characters that can be sent in a single SMS message. It varies from carrier to carrier, with the highest being 160 in the Microcell network.
To get around this problem some, though not all, service providers will split the original e-mail into several SMS transmissions and send them sequentially. Subscribers can also set a profile at the service provider’s Web site, with filters that determine which messages will be forwarded to them wirelessly, and how much of the message will be sent.
RIM And CANTEL
BlackBerry from RIM, and Cantel’s Interactive Messaging, both operating on Cantel’s Mobitex packet data network and both launched earlier this year, solve at least some of the SMS services’ problems.
First, because they use the full bandwidth of the Mobitex network instead of contending for bandwidth on a signaling channel, they can deliver much longer messages – up to 16,000 characters (about five typewritten pages). Neither will deliver attachments, however.
Cantel Interactive Messaging subscribers get a special e-mail address. They can forward their regular office LAN or Internet e-mail to the wireless address when traveling, but run into the same problem of ending up with messages stored only on a limited-capacity hand-held device.
BlackBerry gets around this. The service integrates with office e-mail systems from Microsoft and other vendors and uses the same address for wireless and office delivery. And messages received wirelessly are automatically saved on the office mail server.
Both services use RIM’s Inter@ctive Pager 950, a 3.95-oz. (112g) Intel 386-based handheld computer about the size of an alpha-numeric pager. The unit sells for $550.
Despite its size, the 950 incorporates a 64×24-mm, six-line-by-28-character LED screen – a distinct improvement over PCS phone displays. It also comes with 2MB of memory, a wireless modem and qwerty keyboard, albeit with tiny keys. Built-in software handles encryption, e-mail and organizer functions, contacts and calendar. One AA battery powers the unit for three weeks.
Both services let subscribers send messages to other users, a feature only Microcell has in the PCS world. The vendors say many organizations use the units for near-real-time chat sessions. Messages sent between Inter@ctive Pagers arrive within as little as 10 seconds.
With the Cantel service, subscribers can also send faxes to any phone from their RIM pagers, and even voice mails – a robotic-sounding text-to-speech server reads text messages over the phone to the recipient.
BlackBerry costs a flat $50 a month for unlimited messaging. Cantel offers three pay-as-you-go packages. The $49.95-per-month package includes 500,000 characters of messaging. You pay 10 cents extra per 1,000 characters over. Subscribers can buy or lease the Inter@ctive Pager units.
A principal benefit, according to Dave Leonard, systems support specialist with Waterloo, Ontario-based software developer Descartes Systems Group Inc., is savings on cellular phone bills.
“Many of my BlackBerry users also have cell phones,” Leonard says. “Some are now saying they almost don’t need them. And one comment we’ve heard is that even though they have a cell phone, they can’t always answer it. But with BlackBerry, if they don’t want to interrupt a meeting, they can set the unit to silent mode [it vibrates], and still discreetly check messages and respond if necessary.”
The service also makes the company more productive because it eliminates delays in receiving e-mail and allows people to respond more quickly in problem situations, he says.
“These things are really addictive too,” Leonard adds. “There’s no way we could get them away from people we’ve given them to. They love them.”
E-mail Just The Beginning
Both PCS and packet-data-based e-mail service providers say e-mail is just the beginning. The technology can be used to “push” any kind of textual data out to wireless phone or pager users.
Some, such as Bell Mobility, already offer commercial content services in which they automatically send news, sports, stock market, weather, traffic and other data out to subscribers who pay an additional fee. The most popular of these, aimed at day traders, automatically send out stock price alerts when a stock hits a price threshold the subscriber has established ahead of time.
But a few organizations are also using the technology to automatically push vital corporate information out to road warrior employees. Some real estate companies send agents alerts on recent home sales, for example. Others are using it for dispatch – Getronics is moving in this direction. Companies could also set up SMS or packet-data-based systems to automatically send out price and inventory data as it changes.
The fact none of the PCS vendors could cite reference customers actually implementing this kind of system may suggest the companies doing it believe their applications provide a competitive advantage. Or it may just mean not many are doing it yet.
But push services, in which wireless subscribers passively wait for data to be sent – whether e-mail or “content” – is just part of the wireless data picture now, and possibly not the most important part going forward.
In the past few months, most Canadian PCS service providers have introduced connection kits that let subscribers use their PCS phones – and iDEN-based Mike phones – as digital modems to dial up to commercial Internet service providers or corporate IP networks using a laptop or PDA.
Subscribers use a cable to connect the computer to the PCS phone, then dial up as they normally would over a wireline connection. The PCS service provider routes the call through an analog modem and over the PSTN to the ISP or corporate server.
The PCS-phone-as-modem was new this year when Bell Mobility launched its Digital DATA to Go offering in May. Clearnet had introduced the first such product for use on its Mike network late in 1997. But the Bell offering clearly tapped into a new interest in wireless Internet access. Bell claims the initial production run of kits sold out in ten days. And Bell’s launch was followed by similar offerings from the other carriers that met with a similarly enthusiastic customer response.
The Bell kit includes a cable, manual and CD-ROM with software and documentation. It costs $75. Subscribers pay no extra for air time – it’s charged as for voice calls: 15 cents a minute or less. Most other service providers are doing it the same way. Only Microcell’s Fido is charging an additional $5 monthly service fee.
There were always subscribers who used analog cellular networks to make dial-up data connections. But even with expensive error-correcting modems, it wasn’t easy or very reliable. With digital networks and the new breed of computer-connectable handsets, it appears to be both.
“We interviewed users from our trial and those are two of the things they’re most excited about: how easy it is, and the reliability,” says Bell Mobility vice president of services development Charlotte Burke. “We heard stories about people driving up to the cottage with a spouse sitting in the backseat doing e-mail for two hours uninterrupted. It’s got that kind of reliability.”
The prospect of Web browsing over an expensive 9.6Kbps connection isn’t particularly compelling. But for laptop- or PDA-centric users, who don’t need to see e-mail the minute it arrives, this may be a better solution than the follow-me e-mail services.
For example, accountant Marshall Sone, director of Toronto-based Saber & Sone Financial and Insurance Consultants, uses Digital DATA to Go to retrieve e-mail about four times a day. He spends most of his time at customer sites and in the past tried to use the client’s Internet service to collect his e-mail – usually with difficulty, often without success.
How easy and reliable is it? Sone recently switched ISPs. He contends it’s now easier and more reliable dialing up over the PCS network to his new ISP than it was dialing up over the wireline network to his old service provider, although he concedes that has more to do with the unreliability of his former ISP.
Sone spends so little time online – just enough to download messages – that it makes no noticeable difference in his air time usage, he says. He has a 2,500-minutes-a-month air time package from Bell.
Arrival of Microbrowsing
Current data speeds and the size of wireless handheld displays may not be conducive to Web browsing, but that will change. And in the meantime, wireless service providers, led again by Bell Mobility, are beginning to introduce the concept of microbrowsing.
A microbrowser is a cleverly programmed, stripped-down Web browser that takes up so little memory it fits easily in a PCS phone or PDA. The idea is that subscribers will use microbrowsers to retrieve Web or intranet pages, specially-coded with few graphics and designed to show up well on handheld displays.
WAP – the Wireless Application Protocol – establishes a suite of standards for wireless IP communications, including a page mark-up language, derived from HTML, that can be used to code microbrowser pages.
Few manufacturers, developers or Web site owners have actually implemented WAP-compliant solutions yet. But Bell and Clearnet are using the UP.Browser from Phone.com Inc. of Redwood City CA, formerly Unwired Planet. Phone.com is a major proponent and co-developer of WAP. The UP.browser, while not WAP-compliant now, will “evolve” in that direction, the company says.
Three phones Bell sells now – the Nokia 6185 and Qualcomm QCP-2700 and QCP-2700F – come with the Phone.com browser or can be upgraded to run it. The software also runs on the Motorola i1000Plus used in Clearnet’s iDEN-based Mike network. Most other phone manufacturers will have microbrowser-equipped products as well.
But you can’t do much with them yet. Only a handful of pages encoded using Phone.com’s HDML (Handheld Devices Markup Language), a precursor of the WAP WMLScript, are accessible on the public Internet.
Bell, Clearnet and Microcell all say they are working with content providers to develop microbrowser-based services. Both the Bank of Montreal (Bell) and the Royal Bank (Microcell) are working with PCS carriers on wireless online banking services.
Bell and other service providers are also helping companies create their own HDML-enabled information. Adapting existing Web or intranet content for HDML is relatively simple, Burke says. “Most want to get access to their own Web sites first,” she says, “for employees to check phone lists or get price lists.”
Creating stripped-down, text-heavy and frequently updated HDML or WAP WMLScript pages on an intranet for road warriors to access over the PCS network using their cell phones makes a lot of sense for a small range of types of information – prices, sales data, inventory levels, service orders, etc.
It is probably the closest anyone will get to true mobile wireless Web browsing in the immediate future. But that too will change.
The Road Ahead
The first PCS phones with larger displays have begun to appear. LaJolla, California-based NeoPoint Inc. introduced the NeoPoint 1000 earlier this year – it has a wider 10-line display, instead of the usual four-line window on most PCS phones. The NeoPoint 1000 was the first of a new breed. Other vendors have already or will introduce similar products.
And PDAs, which already have larger, more Web-friendly displays, are now beginning to be wirelessly connectible – led by the new Palm VII Connected Organizer from market leader 3Com Corp, which is expected to be a trend setter.
The throughput problems on wireless networks will eventually go away too. Carriers are planning a series of initiatives as they evolve to the higher speeds of G3, which will deliver up to 384Kbps to mobile users, and 2Mbps to stationary users.
Microcell and partners are now running G3 technical trials in Montreal using prototype equipment, but G3 won’t have a commercial impact before 2002.
In the short term, using data compression techniques to reduce the amount of data that has to be transmitted to send a standard Web page could increase effective throughput on existing 9.6 and 14.4Kbps networks to between 30 and 56Kbps. But it means ISPs installing compression software on their servers, and users on their phones. Our guess: it won’t be widely available anytime soon.
A better bet is interim PCS network upgrades. Some carriers may begin upgrading networks as early as mid-2000 to deliver speeds in the 114 to 144Kbps range.
Do you need wireless data? Many corporations don’t. But it’s not hard to imagine industries and markets where being able to transmit data wirelessly could be strategic. Couriers – which built their own custom wireless data systems because it was so important to them – are just the most obvious.
Take a look at your own operation. If you have a number of employees who spend a lot of time in the field, chances are you have communications problems that could be solved with wireless data.
Tony Martell is a freelance writer specializing in information technology and IT management. He is based in London, Ont.