Worldwide wireless a challenge for global businesses

Different networks, standards and plans need to be addressed, users say

At Stiefel Laboratories a select group of senior managers from around the globe meets four times a year to discuss wireless IT initiatives.

Whether it’s providing BlackBerry devices to the salesforce or equipping warehouse workers with a new wireless handheld device that tracks shipments and communicates with the ERP system, “projects like that would come to the governance committee”, says Pat Smith Fernandez, corporate vice president, global IT/MIS operations at the Florida skin-care pharmaceutical company.

But with 35 wholly owned subsidiaries in 30 countries, standardising on wireless devices, platforms and service plans is anything but easy. “There are competing [wireless protocols] on a global scale,” Smith says.

While today’s third-generation, or 3G, wireless technology has given users high-speed voice, data and video capabilities on a variety of devices, as well as roaming capabilities throughout Europe, Japan and North America, the adoption of wireless technology varies worldwide. Systems, pricing and preferred devices differ from country to country — and more changes loom. Wireless developers are already hyping mobile WiMax 802.16 technology, which is expected to support the use of multimedia applications over wireless connections.

The consumerisation of IT complicates the global landscape even further.

“Twenty years ago in IT, the enterprises and governments tended to lead. [With wireless technology], consumers are leading the front edge. They’re pushing the envelope harder than IT,” explains Gartner analyst William Clark.

So, can a company standardise wireless around the globe? The answer is no, at least not now, according to Clark.

Multinationals will need to support wireless diversity for at least five to seven more years, he says. “There is no one platform” for wireless technology, says Clark. Trying to guess which wireless technology will dominate and then moving exclusively to that technology now would be a bad idea, he adds.

Although it costs nearly 10 times more to manage wireless services and devices than it does to manage wire-line devices, according to Aberdeen Group, it won’t pay to wait for one specific standard to emerge.

What companies can do is choose the best wireless technologies by region and business unit, and achieve maximum return on investment for those purchases now.

Start with business units to mitigate risk

For multinationals, there are big stakes involved with deploying wireless quickly. A wireless project that suffers a six-to-12-month delay “misses a big chunk on your return-on-investment window”, Clark says.

To speed deployments, one big trend among multinational companies is staging wireless deployments by region or business unit. “It mitigates some of that risk,” Clark adds.

At Accenture’s 200 offices in 49 countries, employees are migrating towards Bluetooth technology for short-range wireless, wi-fi for all laptops to connect to the firm’s new voice and data network on an Multiprotocol Label Switching backbone, and Research In Motion (RIM) and Microsoft Mobile technology to support various cellular standards worldwide.

But each business unit decides which technology to deploy. “We don’t say, ‘Everyone at Accenture is going to get this [device]’,” explains CIO Frank Modruson. “We say, ‘Here is the menu of products and services. How do you want to equip your people? What capabilities do you want to offer them’?”

Modruson knows it’s important to support multiple wireless technologies. For instance, Accenture supports only RIM and Microsoft Mobile technology for global cellular service and puts fewer restrictions on the device or carrier.

“The software was the key differentiator for us,” he says. “I don’t really care about the model device somebody equips themselves with, because those churn pretty frequently — but the software doesn’t.”

Offices outside North America might also have wireless device preferences based on the location’s level of adoption or the pricing plans available. In Europe and Asia, for instance, carriers don’t offer unlimited data plans. Instead, users pay for every message unit, and text messaging costs less than email messaging.

So while BlackBerry devices have become ubiquitous among US executives, in Europe they are much less common because users have to pay per message. “It’s just the way the carriers price,” Smith says. For this reason, she negotiated separate agreements for Stiefel on different continents — starting with Sprint Nextel in South America and Cingular Wireless in North America.

As part of each country’s pricing plan, Smith also considers the added services carriers offer.

In Asia, for instance, customers can pay for tolls, parking or even newspapers through their cell phones.

“We adapt by having policies on what can be expensed back through cell phones in different markets. If it would make my sales rep more productive on the road by doing that, then we would [allow it],” Smith says.

Embrace emerging wireless devices

Premiere Global Services has learned to deal with wireless diversity. The Atlanta-based on-demand software company coordinates wireless policies for its 2,200 employees in 18 countries. Last year, Premiere standardised its workforce on BlackBerries, using BlackBerry Enterprise Server software to deliver applications to the devices. But a smattering of employees around the world preferred Microsoft Windows Mobile 5 smart phones and Palm OS devices.

David Guthrie, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Premiere, says he could have “put the clamps down” and refused to support the devices, but instead he made sure that the company’s email exchange services were compatible with them. He developed specific applications for those devices that would enable them to print to a nearby printer or fax and instantly enter conference calls.

Although wireless diversity causes more work for IT, Guthrie sees it as a good thing — within reason. “Obviously, it makes it easier if you don’t have to support [so many devices], but we have a lot of young, bright people in the organisation who are gravitating towards newer technologies, and we want that culture,” Guthrie says. “We have to control it as much as possible but at the same time not stifle the organisation.”

Employees’ wireless preferences also reflect the preferences of the company’s customer base, he adds. “So in some ways, it just helps push us a little earlier than we would have otherwise,” Guthrie says. However, he warns, “You have to be careful with standardisation. You can stifle a lot of creativity within your organisation, and a lot of productivity and efficiency.”

Use multichannel access gateways or wireless application gateways

Companies whose employees worldwide need to wirelessly reach back-end systems such as Oracle or SAP are moving towards multichannel access gateways or wireless application gateways. The gateways provide a buffer between wireless devices and the back end, so users can swap out and migrate to the wireless technology. IT can alter the applications’ infrastructure without affecting end users.

New technologies are also emerging that let companies roll out applications to many types of wireless devices simultaneously. For instance, Volantis Systems in Seattle offers a thin-client application server that lets companies project over a portal both consumer- and enterprise-based-applications to 3,000 different devices. “The big guys, like SAP and Oracle, are innovating [similar technology], but they just can’t keep up” with specialty firms like Volantis, Clark says.

Deploy GPRS cards for globe-trotters

There are some wireless technologies that are globally compatible but often expensive. Globe-trotting executives at Stiefel Laboratories use Global Packet Radio Service (GPRS) cards in their laptops. The PC card allows a notebook or BlackBerry to connect to the internet across a cellular network and provides an 802.11b adapter in the same card. When users are in range of a public or private hot-spot, they can connect at up to 11Mbit/s In the field, wireless connections can be made using GPRS or a slower Global System for Mobile Communications dial-up link.

“It works pretty seamlessly” from country to country, Smith says. “But it can get fairly pricey.” The GPRS card costs about US$60 (NZ$81), plus US$70 per month for unlimited data use within the US. International use costs about US$140 a month. For Smith, using her BlackBerry is a different story: “When I travel overseas, I pay roaming charges, and my bill could be US$500 to US$700 a month,” she notes.

Looking ahead, Apple’s iPhone and the widening use of iPods for training will present new challenges for global IT departments, Smith says.

On the standards front, companies like Motorola, Samsung Electronics and Sprint Nextel are already holding out the promise of WiMax and mobile WiMax. But don’t hold your breath, Gartner says.

“Our strategic planning assumption is — in a best-case scenario — that system would go into production in 2012 to 2015,” Clark says.

Contrary to what carriers would have consumers believe, “fourth-generation wireless is not around the corner — we’re still trying to pay for and fully utilise 3G.”

Global wireless best practice

Some global IT leaders offer their advice for deploying a worldwide mobile IT plan:

• Adopt multichannel access gateway mobile technology. If you don’t and instead create a platform that insulates you from changes, you could end up losing 30% to 50% of your investment.

• Mitigate risk with an incremental deployment — by business unit and/or location.

• Be very astute about your workforce and its readiness for wireless access. Some employees may not need or want advanced capabilities.

• Don’t shut down users who want to try new wireless technologies. Systematically standardise wireless, but avoid turning off young professionals by stifling creativity.

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