Despite its flaws, it's time to start thinking about how wireless broadband could change your business.

In the coming years, greater wireless bandwidth will help simplify the design and use of mobile applications, making it easier for remote employees to access complex enterprise systems and do more work from afar. "Right now a lot of the mobile apps are poorly designed, and people have to go out of their way to use them," says Yankee's Signorini. A more reliable mobile infrastructure would mean that applications could be easier to use.

CIOs and other technology executives are already imagining the effect greater mobility will have on their businesses. At J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., a $2.7 billion logistics and transportation company based in Lowell, Ark., 75 percent of remote offices have been upgraded from costly DSL and dial-up connections to fixed wireless broadband over the past two years, which the company expects will save more than $1.2 million annually, just by lowering connection costs. But CIO Kay Palmer is also looking at how greater mobility can help improve the company's driver-retention rates in its long-haul unit, which currently can hit 100 percent turnover each year among its total 12,000 driver force. The job is so hard, and demand for drivers so high, that it's easy for drivers simply to quit and pick up another job when they want. "Unfortunately, it's a common problem in our industry," Palmer says. "There just aren't enough drivers out there."

To entice drivers to stay, the company is looking to develop handhelds that use WiMax and cellular technologies to provide better mapping, communication tools, remote training and even entertainment services. "If our drivers can do better route planning and online training, check e-mail or have some entertainment on the device," Palmer says, "then they will be happier, more productive, have fewer accidents and be more likely to know their routes and procedures. That will improve productivity, and hopefully reduce driver turnover."

At Northrop Grumman Corp., the $30 billion defense company based in Los Angeles, wireless mobility is more important than ever, says Tom Shelman, the company's vice president and CIO. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the company's shipyards in New Orleans and Pascagoula, Miss., plans to rebuild the facilities incorporated long-range wireless broadband. "We're looking at a mix of cellular and other wireless technologies," says Keith Glennan, vice president and CTO. "Our original plans were to use more wireless LAN technology, but with the destruction of some of the core infrastructure, we are accelerating the rebuilding plans to help us better wirelessly connect our employees."

The goal is to increase mobility among workers—particularly engineers, who move around the enormous, 268-acre facility along with new ships as they go through various stages of construction. "The yard is huge," Shelman says. "If you think about a typical assembly line, the pieces you are moving in this case are thousands of tons. They could be 50 feet long and 50 feet high. In the old world, that meant physically moving phones and computers. It took a lot of manual IT effort." A wireless rollout would enable engineers to take their equipment with them on the fly. The end result: more productive employees, quicker construction of ships, and lowered IT overhead costs.

Northrop isn't the only company that envisions using wireless to change business practices. H&R Block Inc., the Kansas City, Mo.-based $4.4 billion accounting firm, signed on with Sprint Nextel's 3G service primarily to make setting up its seasonal tax kiosks in malls, Wal-Marts and Sears department stores a less painful process. "We install thousands of kiosks during tax time, and we'd have to hire a contractor to deal with extending a phone line or a network," says Kevin Oellien, the company's tech team leader and IT network engineer. Connecting those kiosks wirelessly, through the easily accessed cellular network, makes installation much easier, he says. What's more, it's opened up new ideas for how the company might operate in the future. For example, H&R Block typically pays annual leases for stores that see the bulk of their business from December through late April. Using wireless broadband, it can set up temporary offices in appropriate locations, as well. "It's part of a plan the marketing folks are starting to talk about, being able to set up shop in different areas of the country. We have to bring services to where people are," he says. Oellien expects the coming tax season to be "a good gauge of the value of this technology."

For groups like the Nature Conservancy, a ubiquitous mobile network would not only improve the organization's research efforts, but cut costs dramatically as well. On Kimbe Bay, in Papua New Guinea, for example, where the conservancy is protecting coral formations and other marine life, the local government hasn't yet worked out a satellite deal. So researchers stay connected via a single phone line that delivers all the office's communications. "To download e-mail, you have to plug the line into your computer," says Ecochard. "To get a fax, you have to plug the line into the fax." The dial-up speed is typically 14.4 Kbps, far too slow to receive digital images or send large files. So researchers take a plane to the company's larger, Internet-connected office in Port Moresby every few weeks, where they submit and receive data. A ubiquitous mobile network "would fundamentally change our scientific collaboration around the world," Ecochard says. "Our scientists work in ecosystems that are very similar but in distant parts of the world, and it's impossible for them to connect regularly. If they could share that data, we wouldn't reinvent the wheel as often as we do."

However companies envision a mobile future, the first step will be to create that always-connected, high-speed wireless fabric. And most companies are still waiting for the vendor community to make that happen. "Companies won't go wireless for wireless' sake," says Signorini. "Everyone is waiting for that really transformative environment, but we are still several years away from that."

This article was originally published on 11-05-2005
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