The Business Case for Wireless

Frank Budziak, the IT manager at Cleveland Metroparks, sees wireless technology as enabling more than just education.

He says he might be able to open up the wireless infrastructure at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo so that employees who work on the grounds can be more efficient. For example, if a manager needed to direct a worker to the rainforest exhibit to fix a compressor, the manager could send the order to the worker's handheld and receive status reports.

And there would be even more possibilities if wireless systems were used in conjunction with voice over IP, because employees' phones could work just about anywhere, says Budziak. Such a setup could eliminate the need for separate land-line and cell phone numbers, so the zoo wouldn't have to use call-forwarding systems.

Budziak says the organization's wireless infrastructure isn't able to support such visions -- yet -- but it could do so soon. He's not the only one who believes in the business potential of wireless technologies.

"We're seeing serious uptake of wireless within enterprises because the organizations see real benefits from having this network," says Sally Cohen, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

Early-adopter companies in shipping, logistics, health care, manufacturing and retail have found that wireless communications systems offer an efficient, speedy and cost-effective way to transmit voice and data between workers in the field and central locations, says Gartner analyst Michael King.

Other industries are now considering wireless networks, he says. Companies can benefit from being able to reach employees more easily while allowing them to have more mobility. For example, businesses will find that it's easier and cheaper to use wireless networks to connect telecommuters to corporate systems when they visit the office than it is to set up permanent wired connections that they only use once in a while.

Although companies could calculate real savings from that type of use, they won't be able to assign specific returns on investment from many of the softer benefits that wireless yields, Cohen and King say. How, for example, can you calculate ROI for a workforce that's happier because it can meet outdoors without losing connectivity?

Such scenarios are still far from widespread, though.

"The all-wireless office is in its nascency right now. It's only in the past six months that we have said, 'This is something we can think about, that you can think about operating all your offices like this, because it will work and because it's going to be cheaper,' " King says.

Gartner has predicted that by 2011, 70% of new network ports -- voice or data -- will be wireless.

But challenges remain. King says hills, trees and buildings and other structures can weaken Wi-Fi signals in outdoor deployments, and walls can weaken signals indoors. There are also challenges regarding bandwidth capacity, because heavily trafficked areas with large numbers of users can experience slower speeds.

WiMax, on the other hand, allows for the broadcast of a more robust signal and a wider deployment, King says. Most IT vendors aren't yet shipping WiMax-enabled devices, but that hasn't necessarily slowed interest in WiMax.

Budziak says he's looking at WiMax to determine whether it can deliver even more coverage for Cleveland Metroparks Zoo at competitive prices.

"It's not mature enough to provide the coverage we need here," he says, "but it's a technology I have my eye on."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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