Hype or Hope?
June 2003 - By Lee Gimpel


And then there were two. Today the once fractured North American wireless data landscape has largely consolidated into the 2.5G camps of GPRS and CDMA 1xRTT.

Of course, whenever discussing networks, there is inevitably an argument as to which “G” is which. According to Peter Firstbrook, senior research analyst with Meta Group, it must be conceded that these networks are a half-step up from their predecessors, which average 20 kilobits per second (kbps) or less, but still a half-step behind true third-generation speeds of 144 kbps or more. GPRS promises speeds up to 115 kbps and is generally known to deliver more like 20 to 40 kbps. CDMA 1xRTT (which is known by a number of different monikers) pledges speeds of up to 153 kbps, but actual averages are closer to 40 to 60 kbps.

“Now you have the 2.5 generation—[with speeds of] anywhere from 20 to 60 kbps—which certainly opens up a new class of applications,” says Don Grust, president of Espria, a mobile technology consulting company. On one hand, large attachments like photos and maps can actually be sent to or from the field; on the other hand, interfaces rich in graphics or data, such as full Web sites or CRM or ERP applications, can be efficiently accessed using a mobile device.

Despite this influx of new technology and its resultant hype, the older data networks persist, largely because a considerable amount of the wireless data being transmitted by mobile workforces is little more than a few lines of text. For example, although AT&T Wireless has announced it will phase out its CDPD network in June 2004, Verizon has decided to maintain its CDPD network. Similarly, Cingular Wireless has yet to announce plans to turn off Mobitex, and Motient is still signing up new accounts.

Two Camps

While the older wireless data networks continue to operate happily, and some proprietary carriers, namely Nextel, are by many accounts succeeding, the rest of the mega-carriers have committed to one camp (GPRS) or the other (CDMA). This means that business customers also must choose, because the two networks run on different protocols and require proprietary hardware. However, Grust notes, many enterprises are still piecing together a patchwork quilt of wireless coverage to meet the needs of a dispersed staff. “A field service force might be nationwide in scope, but individuals operate in a given region,” he explains, “so it’s quite common for companies to select different carriers in different regions.”

The GSM-based GPRS camp includes AT&T Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile. Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS have chosen CDMA. Nextel has not announced plans to move away from its iDEN network, which averages 15 to 20 kbps.

In fact, with the widespread rollout of GPRS and CDMA 1xRTT networks in the U.S. in the past year, the carriers are looking ahead. Verizon has already announced the planned launch of true 3G CDMA EV-DO networks in San Diego and Washington, D.C., in the third quarter of 2003. Sprint PCS plans to follow with its own EV-DV network (the successor to EV-DO). On the GPRS side,
T-Mobile, AT&T Wireless and Cingular are all rolling out, or planning to roll out, third-generation EDGE technologies on a limited basis this year.

Advantages, Disadvantages

In simplest terms, the most significant development that comes with the new GPRS and CDMA 1xRTT networks is faster data speed.

However, being able to access the networks means investing in potentially hundreds of new devices or network cards—although the successive stages of the next-generation rollouts will be backwards-compatible with older equipment.

Grust says that another pain point is the difficulty of pushing data to one particular device because of IP restrictions. “With GPRS and CDMA [1xRTT], for the most part, because of the limitations on the number of IP addresses available, they tend to have dynamic IP addresses,” he says. The carriers are working to address this, while some markets, particularly healthcare, law enforcement, public safety and the burgeoning homeland security vertical, face potential
conflicts due to guidelines requiring users to possess static IP addresses.

Finally, even with these new networks—or because of them—coverage maps continue to ignore less-heavily populated areas. Harkening back to the old days of the earliest analog cellular rollouts, companies with the need for comprehensive rural or, in some cases, even suburban coverage might find GPRS or CDMA 1xRTT networks lacking. For the foreseeable future, it will still be best to ensure that any mobile data solution is designed to work both online and offline.

Wi-Fi Convergence

Something that all of the major carriers are exploring—and a few have already acted upon—is the potential of incorporating 802.11 wireless (Wi-Fi) LANs, which offer hyperfast speeds of 11 to 54 megabits per second, into their network offerings. T-Mobile, for example, now offers some 2,200 Wi-Fi hot spots across the country in places like airports, Starbucks and Borders bookstores.

While the potential for transient workers to sign up for this wireless broadband option at first seems huge, both mobile professionals and carriers alike are hesitant to jump in. As Meta Group’s Firstbrook says, “There are many companies right now—I’d even call it a bubble—offering Wi-Fi. But there’s just no chance that all these different investment and business models are correct.”

While white-collar workers might someday be drooling to find the nearest Starbucks hot spot where they can swiftly download the latest sales spreadsheets, many in the vertical industries wonder about mobile technicians stopping at a McWi-Fi burger joint to update spec sheets and diagrams. How will the carriers be able to lure—or coerce—field forces onto these new GPRS, CDMA and Wi-Fi networks?

While most companies are admittedly taking a wait-and-see approach, Field Force Automation found two early adopters, Cox Communications and R+L Carriers, who have taken the plunge into GPRS and CDMA, respectively. These two businesses live and breathe by their mobile workforces. How are their bleeding-edge investments paying off so far?

[email protected]: Cox Communications

In addition to being the nation’s fourth-largest cable provider, Cox Communications offers advanced digital video programming, local and long distance telephone services, high-speed Internet access and commercial voice and data services.

Cox has always prided itself on delivering superior service and, today, its 21,000 employees serve more than 6.3 million customers. To better meet their needs, Cox began automating its substantial field force years ago and set up its own private radio network. Initially, Cox’s different locations employed various mobile solutions from multiple vendors, coupled with the company’s radio system.

However, as its leading mobile communications vendor ran into financial trouble, Cox faced the untenable possibility of using a system that would be unsupported. “We needed to take action to make sure that we had something to fill that void when they went out of business,” says Michael Kovash, MIS manager/WFA at Cox. “What we didn’t want to do is go back to that chaotic manual environment where it’s very tedious just to do the admin support.”

So in 1997, the company selected a new workforce management software suite, MDSI’s Advantex, because it was “the most-used system at the time” and is “an off-the-shelf product that’s virtually ready to go,” according to Kovash.

Cox now has over 3,000 mobile clients in the field based out of 12 separate locations. However, not all of Cox’s markets are covered by the solution, although the company plans to implement three additional sites this year. Meanwhile, some of the covered regions are still expanding their footprints.

Until recently Cox used Advantex software exclusively over its own radio network on ruggedized laptops. Now with next-generation wireless on the scene, this is slowly changing. “We’re starting to experiment with AT&T Wireless [GPRS] because we’re growing our footprint to contractors, as well as to markets where we don’t have systems yet,” says Kovash.

Cox chose AT&T Wireless because it could provide the virtual private network access that it needed. In addition, Kovash says Cox saw a benefit in moving to what he describes as a “global standard” GPRS network. The trial using AT&T Wireless’ GPRS network is being conducted in tandem with application development for Windows CE-based devices (currently Melard Sidearm handheld computers). Cox will be using the Sierra Wireless AirCard 750, which offers both voice and data capability, to access the AT&T Wireless network.

The combination of CE devices and the GPRS network makes for a much less expensive solution and provides greater flexibility, according to Cox. With GPRS, Cox field techs can send and receive data in areas where it was not cost-effective to put up company RF towers. And while the original implementation only covered in-house technicians, the lower cost of the new solution makes outfitting outside contractors feasible.

“One of the drivers of implementing CE was to help complement our contractor staff because they don’t want to [outlay lots of capital] to get active,” says Kovash, noting that outfitting a truck with a data system “runs somewhere between five and 10 grand.”

The Sidearm-AT&T Wireless solution is in trial phase around the U.S. Cox’s initial plans call for migrating the company’s Las Vegas operations to GPRS. While the GPRS network’s speed and security have been well received by Cox, the field techs do require static IP addresses. Cox reports that AT&T Wireless is in the process of trying to resolve this issue.

Not only is the AT&T Wireless network allowing Cox to improve its geographic footprint, but it also holds the promise of enabling new applications because it is two to three times faster than Cox’s own network. “We’ve got plenty of speed and bandwidth on the data radio; however, we’re doing limited applications, so we’re not sure about our capacity if we start to load up other wireless applications,” says Kovash.

Cox is looking toward implementing new applications such as street maps and asset management to maximize the solution’s return on investment. Installing Wi-Fi LANs around parking garages is also a possibility. Kovash says that Cox is waiting until the end of 2003 to do a full ROI assessment. But by his own conservative estimate, Kovash believes the company can build and pay off a complete mobile system in about two and a half years.

“What we’re going to see is that with the CE [and GPRS] implementation has a much shorter payoff period because our costs are going to be driven down substantially,” says Kovash, adding that Cox is now considering using a commercial carrier to provide upwards of 50 percent of the company’s wireless data footprint.

[email protected]: R+L Carriers

R+L Carriers is a leading less-than-truckload (LTL) freight carrier with operations in 40 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and Puerto Rico and Canada. Each day, the Wilmington, Ohio-based company’s 9,400 tractor-trailer rigs and 7,000 employees move approximately 20,000 pieces of freight. However, shipping all this cargo is a process that is heavy on logistics and paperwork.

R+L, like other LTL carriers, sends its drivers out on pick-up routes. When they return to the central service center with perhaps a dozen shipments, R+L must create unloading manifests that indicate what shipments are in each truck and where these shipments are destined. This allows the incoming freight to be accurately offloaded and then properly reloaded onto another truck for delivery.

The issue that R+L faced in their process was that the service center did not know what was coming in before the driver handed over the bills of lading from the various customers on the pick-up route. It was only when the shipments arrived at the service center that the logistical work of rerouting shipments could begin.

Seeking to get the bills of lading back to the service center more quickly so the logistical planning and paperwork could be finished before the shipments arrived, R+L turned to GOSOF in nearby Dayton to implement an effective mobile solution. The technology was aimed at saving the company hours on deliveries and eliminating the time that equipment and employees idled at the central depot.

Two years ago, the solution was rolled out in the form of GOSOF’s patented MOBILEi mobile data terminal, which rides shotgun with R+L’s drivers. The custom-designed MOBILEi has no keyboard and is built around a scanning device that requires little user intervention from the driver, other than feeding in bills of lading.

“We don’t impact our drivers’ ability to drive the trucks,” Bill Seyfried, CTO of R+L, says about the company’s desire to let the field employees focus on what they do best, as opposed to transforming them into data entry clerks.

GOSOF’s solution relies on scanning technology because, in the LTL industry, most bills of lading are handwritten; believe it or not, there is still no standard format for this paperwork. In contrast to most of today’s mobile solutions, what R+L’s drivers are sending is a picture, not just a few words of simple text.

Once the image is received by the processing center, image-recognition software reads bar codes on the bill and routes it to the appropriate department. It’s critical that the image is legible in order to accurately key in any handwritten data on the bills. The image transmitted is a high-resolution TIFF (tag image file format) that is typically 70 to 80 kilobytes in size. This image is also made available to R+L’s customers, who can use the company’s Web site to see that the pick up was recorded. In fact, customers can see the imaged bill minutes after it is sent from the truck.

Because of the relatively large file size of each transmission, the system employs Sprint’s CDMA 1xRTT data network—a step up from the initial deployment on 2G. “Data speed was key,” says Steve Crandall, CEO of GOSOF, adding that his company preferred the faster speed afforded by the CDMA 1xRTT network versus GPRS. He also notes that Sprint’s coverage area was superior to the other carriers they considered, a key factor for R+L’s national fleet. “Have we noticed a difference between 2G and [CDMA 1xRTT]? Yes, absolutely. One hundred percent,” says Crandall.

R+L has outfitted 1,250 trucks with mobile data terminals (MDTs) and plans to have a total of 2,500 to 3,000 equipped by year’s end. R+L’s terminals already employ a GPS-based system that sends a driver’s coordinates back to the service center using the Sprint network. Plans are in the works to both replace simple radio dispatch with text messaging and to incorporate telemetrics to continuously measure readings such as oil and tire pressure. In addition, R+L and GOSOF are considering incorporating wireless LAN technology, particularly around the service centers.

The solution has helped bump up R+L’s daily freight load from 15,000 to 20,000 pieces, reduced the time it takes to get a bill into the system by six hours and eliminated three to four hours of idle time on the loading dock. And with the ability to quickly and easily view bills of lading online, the solution has dramatically improved the service that R+L delivers to its customers.

Seyfried figures the ROI on the solution will be realized in 18 months or less. “Based on the growth,” he says, “the MDT [solution] is key to our success.”

Final Word

While the new networks, coupled with new devices and applications, can seem like big incentives for companies looking to deploy mobile solutions, Grust recommends a back-to-basics approach: make sure that coverage exists where it is needed and evaluate ROI before committing to a new solution or network.

What About the Other Guys?

Editor’s note: With all the hype surrounding next-generation wireless networks, you might wonder what the other networks have in mind to counter this wave of so-called high-speed data. We asked executives at Nextel, the company that runs the iDEN network and has not announced plans to upgrade to a faster system, to discuss the strategy of a company locked in a battle for wireless marketshare. We received this response from Terry Beaudoin, senior director of enterprise data solutions engineering for Nextel.

Nextel was the first wireless carrier to deploy an always-on, digital, all-packet nationwide network in the U.S. three years ago. This network, developed with Motorola, currently uses 16,000 cell sites to serve 197 of the top 200 U.S. markets and is available where approximately 240 million people live and work.

Nextel deploys technology that supports wireless data applications business customers want and need. Nextel understands the real power of the network is what customers actually do with it. For example, a wireless data application called AirHours, developed by AirPut (Norristown, Pa.) allows field managers to enter and review employee hours and project information using a Nextel wireless phone, eliminating the need for paper timesheets.

Nextel is currently doubling its interconnect capacity by implementing voice coder software, which allows six cellular calls to be conducted concurrently over a single radio channel. This cost-effective enhancement to Nextel’s existing iDEN network brings to life the most important benefit of 3G technology—voice capacity. Other wireless carriers must spend billions on entirely new platforms to achieve similar gains in capacity. To boost wireless data performance on its network, Nextel improved the delivery of IP-based data and bandwidth utilization. The new optimization provides a two-to-five-fold speed increase. Nextel’s current data speeds meet and exceed the requirements of Nextel’s primary customers—large enterprises and small and mid-sized businesses.

Focusing on enterprise and business markets led Nextel to become the first wireless carrier to release wireless phones that included Java technology. Java 2 Micro Edition—or J2ME—provides the ideal environment for developing and deploying wireless enterprise applications that allow Nextel customers to transform their handsets into personal digital assistants. Nextel is a leader in partnering with companies to offer wireless data applications that bring businesses and government a return on their investment. Nextel’s adoption rate of wireless data services is nearly 20 percent, or 2 million customers using Nextel’s nationwide IP data network.

For 10 years, iDEN technology has differentiated Nextel from the rest of the wireless world, by not only providing interconnection capability, but also through Direct Connect, the long-range digital walkie-talkie. Nextel is already benefiting from interconnect capacity and data compression enhancements to its current iDEN network, allowing the company to provide services that deliver high customer satisfaction, regardless of competing networks.

Lee Gimpel, a former product manager with a leading mobile/wireless software and solutions company, is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

 


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