By Gary Bolles

Technology: Mobility

InfrastructureWireless data options are about to explode. Stop thinking "cell phone" and start thinking "mobile terminal."

There's a wireless data tsunami coming to the enterprise. Enticed by low initial costs and cool features, users are buying smarter and smarter phones and more talkative PDAs that allow them access to remote applications and more flexible ways to communicate.

But the dirty little secret of such devices isn't just the usual suspect of support headaches. It's the fact that most IT shops aren't prepared to provide the business infrastructure—the management policies and cost controls—these devices demand. To meet that demand, IT must get busy now, before the wireless wave engulfs the enterprise. That means putting in place processes to allocate use and manage billing, then focusing on ways to simplify support costs.

It's easy to dismiss cell phones and PDAs today as low-tech gizmos that are beneath IT's dignity to manage. Get over it. As phones and handhelds continue their relentless march toward each other, the blurring lines of distinction mean that many mobile devices are already providing some flavor of wireless data and voice in the same box. That means more and more data will be moving from the Ethernet into the ether. Researcher IDC says sales of so-called smart phones alone will reach 30 million next year, and wireless handhelds could be more than half of the 40.6 million handhelds expected to ship in 2006, says Kenil Vora, an analyst at ABI Research.

When an otherwise unassuming cell phone or PDA—a growing number of which now come with a full keyboard—can do voice, instant messaging, e-mail and calendaring, and are powerful enough to pick up data from sales-force automation and other enterprise applications, the labels don't much matter anymore. In fact, Gartner Inc. simply calls them "mobile terminals," a mentality IT might want to consider adopting. Include in the mix laptops with Wi-Fi and wireless cards that operate over cellular networks, and you have the same recipe for grassroots user adoption that kick-started PC and LAN adoption, creating big pools of rogue IT that eventually had to be roped into the enterprise architecture. "It gets really scary for a lot of companies," says Keith Waryas, lead analyst for wireless business network services at IDC.

Ask Business Constituents:

  • Which mobile devices do you want your employees to use—and which don't you?
    Ask Your It Asset Manager:
  • How many data-capable wireless devices have our employees purchased?
    Ask Your It Asset Manager:
  • How many different device platforms do they represent?



    You'll need flexible policies to get on top of the proliferation of mobile devices.

    Getting ahead of the mobile tide requires working through a series of steps. First, get your IT architectural house in order. Work with the business side to figure out what kinds of devices, services and carrier networks meet your business needs, then make sure those options can meld intelligently into your network architecture. Jim Wilhelmi, telecom manager at Intermountain Health Care, a $3 billion nonprofit healthcare system in Salt Lake City, says both clinicians and IS technicians needed wireless access to corporate applications from their laptops. IT decided that cellular modems dialing up over Verizon Wireless's network would give them the connectivity they needed, supporting monthly plans ranging from charges per megabyte to unlimited use.

    Next, put together a set of policies that match workers with mobile data capabilities and services. IHC identified about 2,000 employees as qualified users for whom it was willing to provide cell phones or laptops and pay the monthly bills. An estimated 10,000 other users still shoulder the costs of their own wireless devices, expensing only their business use.

    But make sure you don't let those costs fly under IT's radar screen. Assign clear responsibility within IT for tracking mobile data and other telecom costs. Change the allocation and charge-tracking policies so that mobile data doesn't get buried deep in categories like travel and entertainment. The payback for line managers will be greater transparency, allowing them to track and project their own data communications costs more accurately. "Telecom in general is one of the few categories of expenses that winds up all over the accounting spectrum, so rolling up all the costs is very hard," says Don Hobbs, chief operating officer of TelAssess, a vendor of communications cost-management software. Such companies say that up to 90 percent of wireless savings come from simply making sure the right users have the right contracts. An employee on a one megabit-per-month plan who's regularly slurping gigabytes is inevitably getting hammered on monthly charges.

    Just don't assume the information you're getting from carriers is accurate. The Aberdeen Group research firm says 7 percent to 12 percent of telecom-related charges are flat-out wrong, yet up to 85 percent of midsize companies simply pay what they're asked. Those who do focus on their wireless bills find themselves spending about 20 percent of their time trying to identify errors and a resource-chewing 80 percent trying to resolve them. Extrapolate these challenges to your wireless data services, and you have a looming wireless nightmare for IT—and for accounting. "The finance side of the house is critically interested in this approach," says Mike Benzian, director of marketing at cost management software company QuantumShift Inc.

    Ask Your It Architect:

  • What kinds of mobile devices will fit into our architecture?
    Ask Accounting:
  • Have we audited our wireless bills to allow us to estimate what our billing error rate might be?
    Ask Your Carriers:
  • What might our contract look like if we aggregated a large number of our wireless users?



    Software can help ease the pain of tracking policies and billing.

    The process of managing mobile data policies and ferreting out wireless data costs may seem daunting. But there are software and services that can automate many of these steps, turning a potential accounting nightmare into a relatively straightforward exercise in financial discipline.

    Such applications can help companies set up use policies, linking users to appropriate plans and alerting business managers if employees exceed their allocations. They can also compare billing against use to determine if the company has been overbilled. It's possible to perform these tasks manually, but users say that communications cost management is most effective when it's automated. "Having a tool to do that is very important," maintains IHC's Wilhelmi.

    The complexity—and the value—of installing such software depends on issues like the number of vendors you're using and the kinds of links you require to your accounting systems. Smaller companies that are unsure if they can afford to manage an in-house application can use outsourcers for everything from hosting to handling carrier negotiations. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to receive bills in electronic format. Some carriers support bill transmission by EDI, while others send CDs with spreadsheets. Smaller local carriers are likely to provide paper only.

    Armed with good data, however, you're on a far more even footing with carriers, who in the past held all the information cards. You might even be willing to accept slightly higher rates for your wireless data contracts if it means you'll be more assured of easier accounting.

    Ask Your Software Guru:

  • How difficult would it be to integrate telecom management applications into our ERP and other systems?
  • Ask Your Line Managers:
  • Would better visibility of wireless costs help us budget better?

  • Tell Your Accounting Department:
  • We should partner on reviewing telecom cost management applications and services.
  • Standards


    Corporate buying power will promote standards that will change how mobile data works.
    Until recently, wireless data services from U.S. carriers offered poky performance at breathtaking cost. But competition and upgraded cellular networks mean new services providing raw wireless access speeds at up to double the performance of dial-up.

    But carriers still have a long way to go to provide the kind of services and support that IT needs. To date they have done little more than focus on consumers, marketing offerings like ring tone downloads and digital photography, while ignoring IT's requirements for services that make it easier to manage a wide range of mobile devices. "The challenge is that most of the carriers have been largely set up to deal with consumers," says IDC's Waryas. However, some carriers claim that is changing, if slowly. "Today, the behavior is really consumer-oriented," admits Bruce Friedman, group director of mobile computing services at Sprint Corp. "[But] as you see more companies become corporate sponsors of these devices, that's going to drive different behavior" on the part of carriers.

    Carriers are also coming to understand—if slowly—that they need to offer more services to help manage the mobile computing flood and reduce IT's costs of delivering useful applications to increasingly powerful devices. That includes providing software to help IT departments avoid technologically unnatural acts with mobile devices. "Taking your Siebel application and pushing it down to a two-inch screen is an abysmal failure," warns Sprint's Friedman. To help standardize communications between the enterprise and its mobile users, Sprint recently rolled out a bundle of software and services that's designed to provide easier access to business applications using secure Web services.

    "What's happening is CIOs want standardization for their communications services, whether it's wireless or wireline, just like they have for computing systems," says Kneko Burney, chief market strategist for customer and service-provider markets at researcher In-Stat/MDR. "When you have the major providers coming into the market, particularly now, it means that some standards are going to appear."

    But don't expect changes overnight. As users gobble up camera phones and connected PDAs, the big money for the carriers will still be in the consumer market for the foreseeable future. That means the carriers will have to provide the kinds of services that corporations want to put serious money into. "There's still going to be some work ahead for providers to really add some tangible value to business customers," says In-Stat's Burney.

    Ask Your It Architect:
  • What services could we provide users if we had better bandwidth and software interfaces?
  • Ask Your Business Users:
  • What would you like to do with mobile data devices that you can't do today?
  • Ask Your Carriers:
  • How can you help us provide better access to our critical applications?


    Viewpoint Keith Waryas

    We asked Keith Waryas, an IDC research manager and lead analyst for wireless business network services, for his thoughts on what CIOs should focus on in preparing for the explosion of mobile devices.

    Beware Mobile Support
    What should CIOs focus on with the proliferation of connected devices?
    When you start taking applications out to a wide area network, and you start talking about adding mobility to different types of applications through alternative devices—things like phones and PDAs—it starts bringing support for those devices onto the desks of IT professionals. And that can be a bit of a challenge, because IT's expertise is usually in supporting a client/server environment that's based on a notebook connected to a physical server inside a confined corporate environment. Now you're talking about supporting an application that's going to go on a wireless device that the IT guy has minimal amounts of control over, the company has minimal control over—and has no control over the [carrier] network. You're also talking about some of the holiest of holy information leaving your corporate firewall, and going out through a VPN connection, but still going over a proprietary network over which you have no control at all.

    What about integrating voice and data? How should IT deal with that process?
    Voice has a great tolerance for error, and a very very low tolerance for delay. Data, on the other hand—your e-mail, for instance—has a huge tolerance for delay and extremely low tolerance for error. Trying to manage that balancing act of controlling a single network with those two applications can be really tricky. So what we've seen is that a lot of these companies are looking to outside service providers, they're looking for outside help—sometimes in the form of infrastructure providers, sometimes in the form of pure services—to help make this process go easier.

    The results are available in Adobe Acrobat PDF format. To download the free Adobe Acrobat Reader plug-in, click here.
    • Becoming Unwired

  • This article was originally published on 10-01-2003