By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine
Many companies struggle with connectivity issues in the field — here’s how you can take an active role in addressing them.
The public cellular communications network has become a mission- critical part of many business applications, including mobile sales, route management, field service, delivery, logistics, and others. These applications rely on real-time data to provide improved visibility and efficiency, which means business users are increasingly pushing more data over wireless networks.
Major wireless carriers have upgraded their networks, and for several years they have been rolling out higher-bandwidth 3G and 4G services. “For most enterprise or field service deployments, 4G allows for greater productivity and efficiency as more work can be completed more quickly due to faster download and upload speeds,” says Broc Jenkins, technical support manager at Wilson Electronics. “For those who live in an area featuring 4G speeds, when the signal is there, it will be almost as good as having broadband speeds outside of the traditional office.”
But even in areas where these new capabilities are available, business users struggle with the same types of problems that individuals have experienced with their own personal mobile phones: lack of coverage, dropped connections, and unreliable service in some areas. “Reliable connectivity is critical to maintain peak productivity; however, the mobile broadband networks are inherently unreliable,” says Andrew MacFarlane, founder and CEO of Mobile Pulse. “It is difficult to diagnose mobile network issues and very difficult to differentiate device, application, and network problems. The effort involved in troubleshooting is expensive and timeconsuming without the right tools.”
For personal phone calls, weak signals are an inconvenience; for a data-dependent mobile application, wireless connectivity problems can erode employee and customer confidence in the solution, negatively affect productivity, and reduce the potential return on investment in the solution. “Many organizations have become highly dependent on these networks for fundamental business processes, so if the cellular network is not performing well, the impact on their operations can be dramatic,” says Andy Willett, senior VP of NetMotion Wireless. “As these networks become more congested, organizations are looking for better ways to increase their visibility into how these networks are actually performing for them.”
Dropped Connections = Lost Productivity
Different wireless carriers provide different levels of connectivity, often based on geography. When carrier selection is not optimized, connectivity and productivity can suffer. The most common problem, dropped connections, typically results from weak signal strength. “A wireless deployment is only as good as its signal,” Jenkins says. “Poor signal and dropped connections make a wireless deployment unreliable, even unusable in some instances. Customers, money, and valuable time can be lost when an application doesn’t have a reliable connection.”
Frequently, end users have to go through cumbersome processes to establish a connection to their enterprise systems. If they lose their signal, or even if they want to move to a new location or switch to an available Wi-Fi signal, they have to go through the entire process again. “Because of that, end users simply don’t connect as often — avoiding it until they are in a place where they have more time and, ideally, a wired connection,” Willett says. “The result is that the business does not realize the expected ROI in field automation.”
Determining the source of connectivity problems can be a challenge. Companies need to be able to collect data on wireless connection issues, either using functionality built into existing VPNs, device management, or other software tools, or by investing in third-party software or services that can perform those types of audits.
Complicating the troubleshooting process is the fact that sometimes the wireless network isn’t the real problem. Some applications simply aren’t designed to work well in a wireless environment, and they don’t perform well when coverage, throughput, or latency are variable. Some VPNs are also not optimized for wireless connectivity, and they do not deal well with the challenges introduced by wireless networks and a highly mobile workforce.
Low quality cellular adapters and poorly placed antennas can also cause problems. “Users often don’t have the tools needed to evaluate the performance of different cellular adapters and antennas and often just use whatever the carrier is giving away or offering at a discount,” Willett says. He adds that new network performance management tools can help organizations measure the performance of their deployment, so that they can identify when and where problems are occurring. These tools help track connectivity failures and identify gaps in coverage, as well as assist with troubleshooting.
In instances where the network coverage is actually the source of the connectivity issue, problems may be traced to the user’s distance from the cellular tower; the farther you are from the tower, the weaker the signal will be. Many mobile devices also have relatively low output power and may have trouble transmitting a signal back to the tower over long distances. Natural obstructions (hills, mountains, or trees) and man-made obstacles (lots of metal, brick, or concrete) can also block signals.
Overcoming Wireless Connectivity Challenges
For companies experiencing these types of connectivity problems in a wireless business deployment, the first impulse is often to approach the carrier for help. “[But] the wireless carriers are in a difficult position because they don’t have the insight into individual organizations’ networks to understand where problems need to be addressed, and anecdotal data is insufficient to make infrastructure investments,” MacFarlane says.
Carriers can offer some assistance in identifying areas where coverage may be insufficient, but they are also often wrongly blamed for problems that were actually caused at the application or device level. “Poorly designed applications, legacy VPNs, and poorly engineered devices are just a few of the many nonnetwork components that can dramatically impact the quality of connectivity,” Willett says. “Enterprises need to take ownership of the overall solution by deploying the right tools and then partner with their carrier to address networkrelated issues. The key to success is to come to the table with real data versus anecdotal feedback from mobile workers.”
For some enterprise customers, carriers may go the extra mile and help provide some networklevel solutions. “Depending on the situation, they may deploy a femtocell [a small cellular base station] or even put their customers in contact with third parties, such as signal booster manufacturers, in order to provide a solution to the issue at hand,” Jenkins says. “Because weak signal is one of the main reasons customers switch wireless providers, they try to do what they can to find a simple, cost-effective solution.”
A signal booster can help provide a stronger and more reliable signal, eliminating dropped connections and dead zones, and improving data speeds. However, end users still need to differentiate network-level problems from application-level problems; otherwise, they may be focusing too much of their efforts (and money) on the wrong type of solution.
Don’t take connectivity problems lightly; by improving connection reliability, enterprise users can improve productivity and greatly reduce frustration among their field employees. “More and more people, businesses, and applications rely on wireless devices and technology for day-to-day functions,” Jenkins says. “The successful deployment of these devices depends greatly on the strength and reliability of the wireless signal. Regardless of what cellular deployment a business is using, whether it’s for asset tracking, data management, remote monitoring, or [rugged devices] in a truck, getting and staying connected will continue to be a major issue companies will be forced to resolve.”