Magazine Article | December 1, 2005

No Excuses For No Real Time

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

With the prevalence of handheld devices that integrate multiple wireless communication radios, barriers to real-time communication are eliminated.

Integrated Solutions, December 2005

You've no doubt heard of and read about the proliferating wireless technology terms in the enterprise space. Acronyms such as GPS (global positioning system), CDMA/GPRS (code division multiple access)/(general packet radio service), WWAN/WLAN (wireless WAN/wireless LAN) feature heavily in industry conversations, as do Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. These terms all represent some form of wireless communication technology. If you haven't already, you'll soon see all of these terms listed in the spec sheets of wireless devices (e.g. rugged handhelds, PDAs, laptops, cell phones). And having that breadth of wireless capability in your devices means more ways for your company to communicate in real time.

In any company that has mobile workers (such as field service/sales, route delivery, and distribution), the home office and those workers need to communicate back and forth. Data such as work orders, route changes and updates, and signature images are all communicated wirelessly, and phone calls may be exchanged both ways as well. Often, the data collected on the device is transmitted back to the home office (or received from the home office) in batch mode. When a worker finishes his shift, he places the device in a cradle where it sends and receives information. However, batch communication is becoming less and less plausible in the face of wireless technology -- and more and more of a competitive disadvantage.

The variety of wireless technologies on mobile devices is eliminating some hurdles companies face achieving real-time communication. "The ability to communicate in real time results from wireless radios in devices," says Stacy Clay, director of marketing for wireless bar code scanner vendor Opticon, Inc. "Take the example of a delivery driver. He can access a Wi-Fi connection at a delivery location or his home, and he can communicate via cellular networks in the field. Corporate data can be transmitted back and forth in real time, and even large files, such as signature captures, can be quickly transmitted."

When on-site, either at customers' sites or the home office, technicians typically use a Wi-Fi or WLAN network (if available) to communicate. Wi-Fi is less expensive and usually can handle larger amounts of data, transmitting data at speeds of up to 1 Mbps (megabit per second). Most cellular networks can transmit data at speeds of more than 300 Kbps (kilobits per second). Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless' EvDO (evolution data only) networks, which are 3G (third generation) wireless data networks, can send and receive data at more than 300 to 500 Kbps. Cingular Wireless operates a different 3G network, EDGE (enhanced data rates for global evolution), which transmits data at more than 380 Kbps. These networks are generally used by mobile workers while in transit. "Cellular networks aren't as stable as Wi-Fi when handling a lot of data," says Doug Bolden, VP of business development for handheld manufacturer Nordic, Inc. "Companies need a mix of both methods." Most devices manufactured over the last year or so have Wi-Fi capability, and many -- even rugged devices -- are manufactured in partnership with a wireless carrier and thus have radios for the cellular data networks.

If you aren't in a situation to buy new in your mobile deployment, but want to take advantage of improved wireless technology to communicate in real time, there are other options. Almost all devices manufactured over the last five years have WLAN capabilities. With those, you can take advantage of a technique that creates a hot spot in each of your workers' vehicles. This hot spot is called a vehicle area network (VAN). "With a VAN, a box installed on the vehicle has CDMA/GPRS and WLAN radios in it," says Mike Zelman, director of marketing and sales for handheld manufacturer Tripod Data Systems (TDS). "Older-generation handheld devices can connect with the box via the WLAN hot spot, and the box converts that communication into a cellular signal." This service is not offered by all vendors, so ask your device manufacturer for assistance in exploring VAN possibilities.

If your workers' mobile devices are equipped with Bluetooth, you can take advantage of another method to enable real-time communication. Using the Bluetooth connection, the handheld or laptop can communicate with the workers' cellular phones (which also would need to be Bluetooth-enabled). The phones will act as wireless modems to transmit the information via their cellular radios.

In addition to cellular data networks and Wi-Fi radios, many mobile devices also have GPS and Bluetooth radios. These wireless technologies can add to the benefits of real-time communications. "With GPS, companies can more efficiently manage their field forces," says Zelman. "For example, a manager in the office can dynamically allocate field personnel depending on their locations and how long a particular technician has been on-site performing a task."

With Bluetooth, companies can add on peripheral devices, such as bar code scanners and pens, mobile printers, and headsets (see sidebar on page 13). "With Bluetooth built into pretty much everything now, mobile workers can maintain any scanning and printing they need to do as part of their everyday jobs," says Clay. "Field service is a good example, where workers scan bar codes to track serial numbers for parts."

Wireless technology is constantly changing, and 3G cellular networks continue to evolve. Should you wait on technology before deploying mobile solutions? That depends on what application you'll be running, according to Zelman. "For situations where data sent over a wireless network, such as updating GPS data once a minute, the bandwidth requirement is low," he explains. "Some organizations need a higher bandwidth. For example, a law enforcement agency that wants to enable police officers to view photos of convicted felons on handheld computers in the field needs a faster network to handle that data."

However, Zelman cautions that companies shouldn't let a need for high speed stop them from deploying a mobile solution and communicating in real time now. "The value of being connected, even over low-speed networks, is so high that for most companies, it makes sense to start moving on wireless applications," says Zelman.