First, the good news: for companies planning to deploy broadband connectivity to their mobile workforces, the options have never looked better. Initial rollouts of 3G (third-generation) cellular data technology are fulfilling the technology’s promise. Sales and field forces can connect to the Internet and corporate applications from virtually anywhere, network speeds are reasonable, and deploying the technology requires only minimal IT investment.
“We didn’t run into a single issue,” says Randy Cairns, assistant vice president for distributed technology at American Republic Insurance, which has begun a pilot program using Sprint 3G service and expects to roll out the technology to 200 salespeople in the next year. Cairns’ comments echo those of other early adopters who have been happy with the ease and low cost of cellular data deployment.
Now for the bad news: Although current 3G offerings are a good start, the path toward a truly ubiquitous, high-speed wireless world is murky. Mobile WiMax, the wireless broadband technology that’s touted as offering landline performance to mobile users over wide areas, is at best several years away, and some analysts feel it may never fulfill its promoters’ promises.
Exploring 3G options
On the positive side, U.S. cellular carriers are finally offering data services that get the job done. Enterprises can subscribe to 3G technologies from three major companies: Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless, and Cingular Wireless. A fourth carrier, T-Mobile, markets data services but only supports GPRS (general packet radio service) technology, which provides dialup speeds rather than true 3G service.
For each of the various cellular technologies deployed today, the actual throughput users can expect depends on geographic location, network load, and distance from the cell tower, among other factors. Each carrier also offers fallback to a slower network for rural locations and other areas where broadband service is unavailable.
That flexibility is critical for American Republic, Cairns says. The insurer’s salespeople tend to go to customers’ homes, and having online access when talking to prospective customers is a big benefit. With average connection speeds of its Sprint EvDO (evolution, data optimized) service between 480Kbps and 960Kbps, users are happy. Even in smaller areas, where GPRS speeds drop access down to 56Kbps, salespeople appreciate having a convenient connection, Cairns says.