The All-Mobile Workplace Will Change EverythingEventually
Wireless capabilities have improved, but we're still a long way from the truly mobile enterprise.
Someday, we'll all be connected to a high-speed, ubiquitous wireless mobile network 24 hours a day, and it will change they way we work, the way we play, and the way we interact with everyone. This seamless, wireless fabric will connect every short- and long-range technologyBluetooth, WiFi, WLAN, WiMax, 3G, satellite and just about any other wireless mobile technology that comes alongand will automatically switch you from one to another depending on where you are and what connections are available. As you leave the office at the end of the day, your handheld or laptop will automatically leap from your company's wireless LAN to your cell phone provider's 3G network; when you arrive home, it will seamlessly connect to your home WiFi network.
Think about what this could mean for your business. The significant reduction of downtime, for starters. You could collaborate with fellow engineers as you revise the latest CAD drawings of your company's forthcoming product linewhile you're waiting to see your dentist. Or edit your firm's newest television commercial while you're sitting on the subway. Or be able to instantly change the price of your top-selling product to meet demand as you wait for your plane to board. The goal of mobility: Work never has to stop, employees are never idle, and productivity can be maximized.
Now imagine how such a network could transform your everyday life. You could record a lengthy digital video of your daughter's birthday party from your handheld and send it instantly to her grandmother, who lives 3,000 miles away. On a weekend road trip, your kids could access feature-length movies over the Internet to keep them occupiedand quietin the backseat. You could download roadmaps, check real-time traffic and even make online purchasesall from your handheld or laptop, whether you're on a bus or a train, strolling down Main Street, or camping in the woods.
Unfortunately, we are still many years away from such a world. Despite the increasing demand for mobile technologywhich, in the past three months, has led just about every wireless telecom carrier to announce plans for upgraded cellular services by the end of this yearthe realization of a true, mobile broadband network that operates as reliably as traditional broadband still eludes us, and probably will for some time. We've gotten better at portable mobilitythe ability to take your laptop to the airport, to a conference, or to Starbucks and connect it to a WiFi network, for example. WiFi has given people a taste for wireless broadband, but it's a short-range technology meant for stationary workers confined to a physical area of only a few hundred feet. Once you leave that hotspot, you're no longer connectedand that doesn't qualify as truly mobile.
There's no doubt that companies want greater mobility. IDC predicts that the number of untethered workers connecting to internal systems through mobile laptops and handheld devices will increase from 650 million, in 2004, to more than 850 million, in 2009a quarter of the global workforce. Gartner estimates that by 2010 there will be three billion subscribers to mobile services worldwide. And according to an August CIO Insight research report, 60 percent of companies that currently support mobile technology plan to increase their spending on mobility within the next 12 months. But the questions remain: How will companies wring the most value out of ubiquitous wireless broadband, whatever form it ultimately takes? And how will a truly wireless mobile broadband network change the way they do business?
3G is farthest along in market share, but WiMax isn't far behind.
When it comes to long-range, high-speed wireless broadband, there are really only two technologies currently worth noting3G and WiMax. (Other technologies, including Bluetooth and WiFi, have their uses, but simply don't have the range to qualify as truly ubiquitous.)
3G has been around, at least in prospect, for what seems like forever. What's changed is that now telecom carriers are offering it as a means to connect to the Internet. Unfortunately, it's not an IP-based technology, and data rates are only between 200 Kbps and 2.4 Mbpssometimes even slower than DSL. And only three major telecom carriers currently offer the service: Sprint Nextel Corp., Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless (T-Mobile announced in September that it would launch 3G services by 2007). Still, it's the most widespread mobile technology available in the U.S.and it works, at least in densely populated urban areas that have coverage. "I've used it on the Acela train," says Gene Signorini, an analyst at Yankee Group. "It's not consistent, and the throughput you get depends on your proximity to a cell-phone tower, but it held up pretty well." Yankee predicts that only 4.9 percent of cell phone subscribers will have 3G capabilities by the end of this year. "We are just in the beginning of 3G mobility in the U.S., and even that isn't broadband as we know it. Not on a consistent basis comparable to DSL or Ethernet," Signorini says.
But the real key to ubiquitous wireless broadband may be WiMax, short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, or 802.16. With speeds of up to 70 Mbps, it's considerably faster than cellular 3G services, and is specifically designed to deliver media-rich data such as video. But the current flavor of "fixed" WiMax is not truly mobile or ubiquitousyetand won't be until at least the end of the decade, according to experts. Although it now has a range of roughly six miles, transmitting from cellular-like towers, there is no standard to transfer connections between nodes, which means that once you go out of range, you get disconnected. "Think of it like shining a really big spotlight in one area," says Ellen Daley, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "You can be mobile in that area, but can't transfer to another area." Products for fixed WiMaxwhich completed its standard this yearwon't be available until early 2006.
Analysts agree that truly mobile WiMax will be more cost efficient in the long run than cellular technologies, but, because of its slow start, many doubt that it will ever rise to challenge 3G. Although WiMax has the support of Intel Corp., Alvarion Ltd. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., "realistically, if we see wide-scale adoption of the mobile stuff, I would be very impressed," says Roger Marks, a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who chairs the IEEE 802.16 working group on broadband wireless access. For now, WiMax's most practical application is to deliver broadband to large swaths of remote geographic areas where wires and 3G services are too expensive.
Rather than building out a separate network, Phil Marshall, Yankee Group's vice president of wireless technology, expects the telecom companies to eventually offer WiMax as a complement to 3G. "It would cost between $2 billion and $3 billion to build out a nationwide WiMax network, and there's just no demand to justify that," he says. Marshall says 3G will eventually have ubiquitous coverage, and WiMax will be available in metropolitan areas where the demand for rich mobile media such as video will be significant.
Don't count mobile WiMax out completely, though. In South Korea, which already enjoys a cellular network that analysts say is several years ahead of the U.S., plans are under way to launch an extensive, nationwide mobile broadband network based on 802.16e technology, called WiBro (wireless broadband), early next year. Meanwhile, Japan is considering WiBro as a national standard for its high-speed mobile data network. Some analysts say that as voice services increasingly move to IP, U.S. telecom companies will be forced to consider WiMaxin fact, Sprint Nextel has already announced plans to test WiMax. Chris Knudsen, CTO at Intel's broadband wireless division, says other telecoms will follow. "Because WiMax is an open standard, it will allow for a much more rapid propagation across the industry," he says. "It will only be natural for the carriers to run trials with it."
Meanwhile, a few companies are turning to satellite broadband services, offered by providers such as WildBlue Communications Inc., Telesat Canada and SkyPort International Inc. Data transfer rates range from 200 Kbps to 1 Mbps, but the problem is that satellite "has some line-of-sight issues, building penetration isn't great, and it's very expensive," says Forrester's Daley.
A single setup can cost $500 per connection, not including monthly fees, which can run upwards of $450. "For those reasons, many companies don't consider it unless it's absolutely necessary," she adds. Most companies that do use satellite only deploy it to fill in gaps where other wireless technologies aren't yet available, mainly in the central U.S. and northern Canada.
And even far-flung organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Arlington, Va.-based global nonprofit ecological conservation organization, which runs 450 offices in 28 countries, would opt for 3G and WiMax over satellite if they were available. "Satellite has limitations," says Jean-Louis Ecochard, vice president and CIO of the Nature Conservancy. "First, you need a license from the government, and that's not always easy. Next, the satellite connection only arrives in one place, and you can't distribute it. There is significant lag time, so it's hard to carry voice. And it's expensive."
Still, for companies operating in remote locations, satellite is the only game in town until WiMax and 3G services slowly become more widely available. As usual, the problem isn't the technologyit's the people, or in this case, the companies competing for market share. "There are still a lot of turf wars going on," says Yankee's Signorini, "and it's going to take some time to get there."
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 workersparticularly 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."