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Getting Untethered

The business case for going wireless. Businesses are adopting more wireless technology for their communications–and the market is responding. Nevertheless, there are still gaps between what businesses want and what service providers understand that they need. This is because the wireless industry has traditionally focused on consumers. Many service providers are only now beginning to understand what businesses and enterprises need.

The flip side is small businesses. Traditionally, SMBs have depended on their vendors to assist them in identifying their needs. Many of these vendors are not yet well-versed on the business side of the market themselves.

The Wireless Business Proposition

Wireless communications offer businesses convenience, the potential to use new business applications in the field that improve business productivity, and the prospect of lower costs. However, most of us on mobile technology also know that it does not always deliver 100 percent voice quality.

Consumer users of cellular and wireless technology have long accepted fluctuating call quality–but that is not acceptable for business. Business voice communications must be at maximum quality. Dropped calls annoy customers–and can lose business. Although many of us would like to be wireless all of the time, the phone call fidelity of traditional landlines is hard to beat.

Conversely, wireless communications reliability, security and fidelity are improving. Every month, telcos see further erosion of traditional landline use–and they are putting all of their investment dollars into technologies like wireless.

The value of untethered communications has prompted many companies to consider a “hybrid” solution for their communications that combines the benefits of wireless and landline methodologies.

“There are benefits in a hybrid infrastructure that combines wired and wireless communications, whether you are a department in a larger enterprise or a small business,” says Tom Libretto of Nokia. “With a hybrid combination, you have persistent communications and also the ability to untether from your desk whenever you want. You can readily use laptops and other mobile devices. This type of wireless infrastructure, with a wireline backup, is becoming more prevalent for businesses, which are getting away from strictly using landlines. Increased reliance on wireless communications also lowers the overall cost of communications–and it is more adaptive.”

Developing a Wireless Strategy

Before deploying mobile devices in your business, think about the security of your information. Even small businesses should plan on having some kind of VPN (virtual private network), along with security management software for network communications and devices.

The next step is defining what you are trying to accomplish with your wireless strategy. Will your mobile communications primarily be for voice and e-mail? Do you also need the ability to keep your files synchronized with those that are on your desktop computer? Do you need access to a customer or CRM (customer relationship management) database?

These can be absorbing questions for a small-business owner who must maintain focus on the core business. Fortunately, companies like Hewlett Packard, IBM, Dell, Best Buy, Circuit City and others all have small business departments that can help you to understand your needs and right-size your equipment purchases and implementations to your needs and budget.

Establishing Your Budget

The budget for wireless technology will vary with the size and needs of the business. One rule of thumb for first year costs is to figure a couple of hundred dollars per user for their wireless device, the software IT deploys to manage the devices, the software on the device itself (the software selected depends on what you want to do), and a data and voice plan from a wireless carrier with a monthly subscription.

On the network side, you will want to set up a VPN. You will also likely contract with an ISP (Internet services provider) for Internet services, potentially obtain a switch capable of routing you to other ISPs if your main ISP is down, and install network monitoring software to manage your devices and network traffic.

You might also need to add wireless cards to some of your existing devices, if you want to convert them to wireless. The infrastructure costs for a small business usually range from $5,000-$20,000.

Getting the Most from Your Investments

Small-business owners want to see return on investment from their technology. They also want to extend the life of the technology assets that the business already has.

One way small businesses cost-justify a move to wireless is the projected savings from cellular phone bills that can occur if wireless devices are able to connect into the business corporate network to use normal landline facilities. This is because cell phones on Wi-Fi or landline don’t incur wireless roaming and other charges. In the communications industry, this is known as fixed-mobile convergence, where a cellular phone can automatically tie into a landline when it is within range of the corporate network or a Wi-Fi center when an employee is on the move.

Some small business owners also take advantage of the fact that many employees already have cellular phones for their own personal use.

“We can segregate the usage of these devices with different phone numbers assigned to a consolidated bill,” says Libretto. “It all comes down to how you choose to configure your accounts on your individual phone.”

The concept is inviting, but there are business sectors like finance, healthcare and insurance where it does not work because of heightened security and privacy requirements and industry regulations that prohibit the use of personal phones for business and vice versa.

A third focus is the longevity of technology purchases. Servers and routers typically have three- to five-year lifespans, but mobile devices have life-spans that are considerably less. Today, their useful lives are 12-18 months and beyond–an improvement.

“The biggest obstacle for customers in cost-justifying mobile technology purchases is quantifying the savings,” says Libretto. “Many businesses are looking to increase mobile solutions into a fuller deployment and ask for consultation time to help them with their strategies.”

Secure Communications

Businesses securing their wireless communications can solve most issues if they concentrate on three things:

* Network management software and device usage policies: Businesses can install software on the network that can immediately tell whether a device is wired or wireless. Many technology providers now offer monitoring systems that check data and phones–and that can also “push down” and provision telephone usage settings to ensure the proper use of devices.

* A VPN: If your employees are going to be connecting into data from Wi-Fi hotspots, it is also imperative to have a virtual private network (VPN) for minimal security protection. Many wireless e-mail vendors build connectivity directly into the e-mail client device. With this security automation, you don’t have to do a security login, which is a convenience feature for users at the same time that they enjoy good security protection.

* Remote control: As devices become smaller, it is easier for them to drop out of pockets when people are traveling. That’s why device management is an integral part of any mobility security strategy. You should have an ability to lock a device, wipe it clean and “kill” it from a central network, even if it is lost. On the device itself, data is normally encrypted for localized protection.

Alternate Strategies

For many small businesses making the transition from landline to wireless technology, VoIP (voice-over IP) is a middle ground that complements both. The value of VoIP is lower telephone costs–and the opportunity to continue to use existing equipment without making major new investments.

“Small businesses need cost-effective communications to compete in the marketplace,” says Kha Phan, CEO of WebPoint Communications, which offers businesses free office communications services.

Businesses can also profit by engaging more than one ISP for their communications. The multiple-ISP strategy provides peace of mind in the event that one ISP goes down–and was a major reason why businesses with cellular or wireless communications and Internet access were able to carry on during Hurricane Katrina while those with strictly landline communications couldn’t.

“We see wireless ISPs on the verge of takeoff,” says Dan Berger, president of Aspen Networks, which offers a multiple ISP switch for under $2,500. “Although performance has been always fast with wireless ISPs, there have been past performance issues. Now, these have been eliminated.”

The Best Applications for Wireless Communications

The businesses that benefit most from wireless have the ability to realize lower costs of communications, improved customer care and sales, and critical mobility options that improve their business performance in the field. Here are several areas where mobile technology is greatly benefiting business:

Service businesses have been early adopters of wireless technology because of the cost benefits in mean time to repair and technician time. For example, field service personnel are able to access real-time information on a mobile device–with the ability to pull up the schematics of a machine they are repairing in the field.

Business executives and salespeople can easily keep up with e-mail and phone calls with wireless technology, especially with newer technologies like unified messaging, where telephone calls and e-mails are all routed to a single, wireless device–even if they came in on your office phone or desktop computer.

Home-based workers are finding it very inexpensive and straightforward to implement wireless networks and devices in their homes. This allows them to move around the house when they need to–and to avoid rewiring their homes.

Public service organizations like police departments use wireless and mobile technology on the beat and in patrol cars to key in license plates and other personal identification when they are working on suspect identification.

How Far Will You Go?

Wireless device manufacturers are focusing on the delivery of true converged voice/data solutions, which will give businesses even more options for wireless applications.

There is also major activity in the area of fixed mobile convergence, which will soon allow businesses of all sizes to use their existing wired telephony infrastructure and a broadband data structure to support wireless communications when wireless devices are within range of wireline networks.

This means that small businesses will be able to use cellular end devices as cell phones, landline phones or Wi-Fi phones–potentially saving significant cellular phone calling dollars, and also improving the fidelity and reliability of phone calls when a cellular phone near a Wi-Fi network or corporate wired network can simply tie in to these channels. With 40 percent of all phone calls taken at office desks already on cell phones, the savings and the quality gains could be quite significant.

With these advancements, the question for most businesses will be how far to expand their wireless communications. Current data already suggests that most will opt to maintain at least a minimal landline and wired network, while expanding wireless usage.

The good news is that wireless choices are flexible, and there is a solution that will fit virtually any budget.

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology practice for technology companies and organizations.

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