By Cindy Dubin, Field Technologies magazine
Faster speeds and data sharing top field techs' wireless wish lists.
Like kids during the holidays, businesses are clamoring for the newest technology to hit the market. Carriers are doing their best to deliver by offering wireless connections that speed up processes, reduce paperwork, and connect people and physical assets securely so that enterprises can operate more efficiently. Such goodies are wrapped up in the form of 4G technology and data-sharing opportunities.
4G And LTE For On-The-Go Jobs
The most notable advancement in cellular connectivity this year has been the build-out of 4G and 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology. While LTE is called 4G, the former promises zippier speeds and improved performance in the future. Soon, all 4G will be LTE. These fast networks, combined with increasingly powerful mobile devices, enabling platforms, and enterprise applications, allow employees to work almost anywhere and make decisions much faster, resulting in significant productivity improvements. 4G networks offer companies — particularly those managing a team of mobile workers, like field techs — a way to tap into super-high-speed networks. And those high-speed wireless networks have the potential to be game-changers for field service operations. The ability to access streaming or live video opens up all sorts of opportunities for repair or installation jobs. A technician could call up a how-to video from a tablet to tackle a tough or unusual repair or use video conference to diagnose and fix a problem from afar.
“The mobile solutions used by businesses now extend well beyond email and calendars and offer access to corporate data and processes in a secure mobile environment,” says Mobeen Khan, executive director, advanced mobility solutions marketing, AT&T Business Solutions. “With 4G-enabled applications running on a smartphone or tablet, workers can accomplish all of the tasks they could on a PC — editing documents, sharing files, capturing signatures, processing payments, and securely accessing the company intranet.” LTE, the latest generation of mobile network technology, promises to revolutionize the use of data services on the move. According to analysts at research group Ovum, LTE delivers wireless data connectivity that can compete with fixed-line broadband services provided by DSL or cable. LTE’s primary objective is to enable operators to better and more cost-effectively transport the rapidly growing volume of mobile IP data traffic on their networks; 109 million LTE connections are expected worldwide by 2014.
“A strong, robust wireless network is increasingly important as wireless users want to access email quickly, upload multimedia, and collaborate with colleagues and customers — all on their smartphones,” says Todd Strohl, manager, business acquisition marketing, Sprint. “As carriers build out 4G LTE networks, the wireless experience will include expanded coverage, faster data speeds, better voice quality, and improved network reliability.”
Mobile Data Sharing Options
Carriers are also offering advancements in data sharing, as the amount of data crossing wireless networks has grown in the past five years, says Frank Sickinger, interim SVP, business sales, T-Mobile USA. One data-sharing technology is Push-to-Talk (PTT or P2T), and its use of Integrated Digital Enhanced Network (iDEN) technology is poised to emerge as one of the premier voice-based applications for many leading mobile communications service providers. Combining aspects of cellular mobile communications, presence detection, and walkie-talkie style communications, PTT provides end users with the ability to quickly find one another and engage in brief, burst-oriented-style communication. Advances in market adoption and technology evolution of voice-over-wireless IP will enable improvements in PTT. Rather than being a replacement with long, interactive communication, PTT is best suited for demands for quick communication among end users. Because PTT is provided in half-duplex mode (i.e. transmission occurs in both directions, but not at the same time — each party must wait to speak), the inability to interrupt lends itself to quick information exchanges. “Carriers like AT&T are providing field service workers with an integrated, IP-based platform that incorporates PTT elements, which can be used on smartphones and feature phones,” says Khan.
Another data-sharing opportunity is the mobile cloud. As field service technicians might be carrying a tablet, smartphone, and a tablet, they are looking for a simpler way to synchronize all of their data. The cloud provides access to information in a single location.
Building out the mobile cloud is one of the key focus areas for enterprise mobility right now, but the technology has not yet reached its potential. For mobile cloud to take hold in a business environment, the technology needs to meet enterprise standards for security, scalability, performance, and reliability. However, Patricia Iurato, VP of sales for manufacturing for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, says recent market research suggests that manufacturers plan to adopt various cloud computing solutions through 2015 to solve problems experienced in the field, document situations in the field, and send reports to a different location. In addition to reporting, the mobile cloud can be used as a peer-to-peer collaboration tool, providing a way for field technicians to exchange information, offer and seek advice, and gain access to stored information.
Finally, a third area of data sharing in field service gaining popularity is that of condition-based maintenance (CBM). Iurato explains that CBM is all about continuous remote equipment monitoring, but the real advantage lies in what mobile technicians can now do thanks to wireless connectivity. “With the availability and power of the 4G LTE network, mobile workers can now use video to call an expert off-site — whether it is across town or across the country — and share photos or videos of the problem and obtain real-time assistance,” she says.
Condition-based maintenance is being enabled by advances in wireless networking technology. Cellular telephone networks are being used to monitor equipment, particularly in remote locations or when the equipment is frequently mobile (i.e. vehicles, construction equipment). Equipment is even being monitored over satellite communication networks for those areas beyond cellular coverage.
Wireless sensor networks are another connectivity option for CBM. These networks use a mesh architecture and incorporate sophisticated intelligence that allows them to configure themselves automatically and to develop the data-sharing routing schemes that avoid interference.
Be aware that no single one of these wireless technologies is the most cost-effective solution for all applications, so consider where the equipment being monitored is located, the distance between the individual pieces of equipment, and the volume of data being transmitted.
No matter which wireless connection is chosen, the pros agree with Strohl that a strong network is what is most important for field technicians now and going forward to expand coverage and hasten data speeds. States Iurato, “As mobile networks mature, organizations are discovering the benefits of mobility and being able to make decisions in real time that affect returns, improve efficiencies, and create revenue streams.”
Why You Should Make BYOD An IT Priority
Staying wirelessly connected is all about choice for some folks — employees want to choose devices they use. This is the core of BYOD (bring your own device) to work. A report from Juniper Research reveals that 150 million employees are using their own smartphones and tablets. That number is predicted to rise to 350 million by 2014.
Both employees and employers have contributed to that growth. In mid-2011, 57% of IT decision makers either actively prohibited or discouraged the use of nonsanctioned applications and devices. Just a year later, 60% of firms allow employees to use consumer applications and devices in the workplace.
BYOD is held in such high regard that half of all mobile devices used for work in the U.S. are purchased and expensed — including airtime charges — by individuals rather being paid for directly by employers. Reasons for this include companies’ desire to minimize corporate costs, financial risks, and liabilities.
As momentum for BYOD has built, corporate IT departments have adapted to support the devices. According to Yankee Group research, in Q3 2011, 26% of businesses offered limited or full support for consumer Android devices; that has jumped to 39% today. Corporate-sanctioned support for iPhones jumped from 36% in Q3 2011 to 46% in Q2 2012.
For IT, supporting this employee choice often means increased security concerns. “Today, nearly 60% of companies allow employees to use personal devices for work, yet PricewaterhouseCoopers reports that only 43% have a security strategy in place for use of employee-owned devices,” says Frank Sickinger, interim SVP, business sales, T-Mobile USA.