While not always top of mind when evaluating field service solution options, the wireless carrier you use can have a significant impact on your ROI.
Integrated Solutions, September 2009
Written by: Ken Congdon
Nowadays, it's common for a field service organization to focus on the flashy new mobile computing devices and workforce automation applications on the market and treat the selection of a wireless carrier as an afterthought. This is in part due to the fact that voice and data services aren't considered as "sexy" as other pieces of the solution, but also because there is a growing perception that all wireless carriers are essentially the same. This perception is not only grossly inaccurate, but it can also endanger the success, TCO (total cost of ownership), and ROI of your field service automation deployment. While wireless carriers have become fairly comparable when it comes to basics like coverage and breadth of devices, there is a new set of criteria by which these companies are differentiating themselves in the field service industry. It is important for you to understand these differences before implementing your solution.
CHOOSE YOUR WIRELESS CARRIER BASED ON FIELD SERVICE-SPECIFIC CRITERIA
Rather than treating the selection of a wireless carrier as an afterthought, many industry experts feel like it's the place you should start when building a field service technology solution. "To ensure a field service application works well requires close collaboration between the wireless carrier, the software application company, and the device manufacturer," says Igor Glubochansky, director of industry solutions at AT&T. "To avoid finger pointing at the completion of the project, it's best to engage all of these parties early in the process. In fact, it is often best to solicit the advice of a wireless carrier first because carriers have already tested, certified, and integrated several devices and applications for use over their networks. The carrier you choose can often provide you with a complete solution out-of-the-box rather than troubling you with the task of integrating disparate components yourself."
If you choose to take Glubochansky's advice, what criteria should you use to determine which wireless carrier is the best for your desired field service application? The following are some key considerations based on feedback from our panelists:
Wireless Coverage Area — "While the coverage area of the top wireless carriers is fairly comparable, it is still an important factor in your decision-making process," says John Girard, industry vertical manager of construction and field service at Sprint. "An organization needs to review the geography of its operations as it relates to the coverage each carrier provides."
Coverage area becomes a decisive factor in wireless carrier selection if your field service operations will take your mobile technicians into highly remote or rural areas. If coverage is not optimal in the areas where work needs to be completed, the effectiveness of your field service solution will be compromised — negatively impacting the TCO and ROI of the solution.
Bandwidth/Mobile Broadband Connectivity — Searching for hotspots to connect to the Internet can waste resources, including time and fuel, and may end in frustration in areas without Wi-Fi coverage. Plus, some hotspots may not offer the levels of security necessary to protect a company's data.
"To ensure you can securely transmit data in real time, you'll want to ensure the wireless carrier you select provides you with the broadband that allows you to connect to the Internet using your own network," says Jay Olearain, associate director of enterprise data solutions at Verizon Wireless. "This capability allows field workers to download large files on their mobile computers from behind their company's own firewall at broadband speeds."
Compatibility With Mobile Devices & Back End Systems — The success of a field service deployment is almost entirely dependent upon how effectively data can be shared between a company's central data systems and its mobile field workers. For this reason, a wireless carrier must be able to support a breadth of mobile devices (e.g. smartphones, PDAs, rugged mobile handheld and notebook computers, etc.) to meet the needs of all field personnel — from mobile executives to technicians working in the harshest of environments. Furthermore, the wireless carrier should also allow you to seamlessly integrate your solution with a variety of back end ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) systems including Oracle and SAP.
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GPS (Global Positioning System)/LBS (Location-Based Services)/Navigation Capabilities — GPS and LBS capabilities can provide real tangible value to a field workforce. These features can be used as a standalone application or as a support feature of a more comprehensive field service solution. In fact, basic navigation services can even be downloaded to a mobile phone, providing your field technicians with turn-by-turn directions that can help increase their productivity while reducing fuel costs. The GPS and LBS capabilities of wireless carriers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Ensure you select a carrier with an application that meets your needs — whether it be simple navigation or more advanced vehicle diagnostics.
Industry-Specific Applications & Expertise — When it comes to building a field service solution, you'll want to ensure your wireless carrier not only provides coverage and devices, but also delivers a variety of precertified field service applications such as scheduling and dispatching, mobile work order management, and service fleet management. According to Glubochansky this is where the battle between carriers is currently being waged.
"Many field service applications are available from more than one carrier, but you want to make sure that the carrier also has field service industry-specific expertise," he says. "With this asset, a wireless carrier can serve as a team of consultants that can help you define the business process, determine how the field service application will be used, help you apply the technology appropriately, and accurately measure the solution's business value."
Price — Getting value for your wireless dollars should always be a prime consideration for a field service organization. However, this must be a TCO- and ROI-based consideration. In addition to weighing all of the previously listed criteria in your price evaluation, you should also include integration costs, software upgrades, platform scalability, and end user training.
THE IMPACT OF WIRELESS CARRIERS ON FIELD SERVICE TCO AND ROI
While it should be clear to you why the previously listed criteria are important considerations in the wireless carrier selection process, you may still question exactly how these criteria can positively or negatively impact the TCO and ROI of your field service solution. The following quote by Glubochansky provides a definitive example:
"When a business implements a field service solution, it doesn't stay with version 1.0 of the solution forever," he says. "The solution and devices are constantly upgraded to evolve with the business. You want to ensure your wireless carrier has the device and system compatibility to easily adjust to new business processes and applications. If you don't, then you may have to do much of the integration work and incur much of the integration costs all over again."
Network longevity is another wireless carrier consideration that can have a significant impact on the TCO and ROI of your field service solution. In other words, you'll want to know what a carrier's long-term network plans are to determine how that might impact your service and the effectiveness of your field service solution.
"Many carriers are currently building more advanced 4G networks, but what if you are deploying a solution on an existing network?" says Olearain. "You'll want to make sure the carrier is dedicated to maintaining its existing networks for some time into the future to prevent you from having to upgrade or reinvest in a solution built on a 4G platform before you are financially prepared to."
Finally, while some industry experts recommend that you evaluate your wireless carrier options frequently to ensure you are getting the best possible service and price, others warn of the TCO and ROI implications of making a sudden move from one carrier to another. "Changing the carrier, like any part of the field service solution design, is difficult," says Glubochansky. "The carrier is a crucial component just like the hardware or software. Plus, if you choose a carrier-certified and -tested field service application, a carrier change can mean a complete redesign of the project. A carrier change should be carefully considered to ensure the impact on the TCO and ROI of the solution is justified."