Worldwide Wireless

Multinational IT execs admit that global wireless deployments can be a technology jumble. But where there's a will, there's a way.

At Stiefel Laboratories Inc., a select group of senior managers from around the globe meets four times a year to discuss wireless IT initiatives being considered. Whether its providing BlackBerry devices to the sales force or equipping warehouse workers with a new wireless handheld device that tracks shipments and communicates with the ERP system, projects like that would come to the governance committee, says Pat Smith Fernandez, corporate vice president, global IT/MIS operations at the skin care pharmaceutical company in Coral Gables, Fla.

But with 35 wholly owned subsidiaries in 30 countries, standardizing on wireless devices, platforms and service plans is anything but easy. There are competing [wireless protocols] on a global scale, Smith says.

Pat Smith Fernandez

Pat Smith FernandezWhile todays third-generation, or 3G, wireless technology has given users high-speed voice, data and video capabilities on a variety of devices, as well as roaming capabilities throughout Europe, Japan and North America, the adoption of wireless technology varies worldwide. Systems, pricing and preferred devices differ from country to country and more changes loom on the horizon. Wireless developers are already hyping mobile WiMax 802.16 technology, which is expected to support the use of multimedia applications over wireless connections.

The consumerization of IT complicates the global landscape even further. Twenty years ago in IT, the enterprises and governments tended to lead. [With wireless technology], consumers are leading the front edge. Theyre pushing the envelope harder than IT, explains Gartner Inc. analyst William Clark.

So, can a company standardize wireless around the globe? The answer is no, at least not now, according to Clark.

Multinationals will need to support wireless diversity for at least five to seven more years, he says. There is no one platform for wireless technology, says Clark. Trying to guess which wireless technology will dominate and then moving exclusively to that technology now would be a bad idea, he adds.

Although it costs nearly 10 times more to manage wireless services and devices than it does to manage wire-line devices, according to Aberdeen Group Inc., it wont pay to wait for one specific standard to emerge.

What companies can do is choose the best wireless technologies by region and business unit, and achieve maximum return on investment for those purchases now.

Start with business units or locations to mitigate risk.

For multinationals, there are big stakes involved with deploying wireless quickly. A wireless project that suffers a six-to-12-month delay misses a big chunk on your return-on-investment window, Clark says.

To speed deployments, one big trend among multinational companies is staging wireless deployments by region or business unit. It mitigates some of that risk, Clark adds.

At Accenture Ltd.s 200 offices in 49 countries, employees are migrating toward Bluetooth technology for short-range wireless, Wi-Fi for all laptops to connect to the firms new voice and data network on an Multiprotocol Label Switching backbone, and Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) and Microsoft Mobile technology to support various cellular standards worldwide.

But each business unit decides which technology to deploy. We dont say, Everyone at Accenture is going to get this [device], explains CIO Frank Modruson. We say, Here is the menu of products and services. How do you want to equip your people? What capabilities do you want to offer them?

Modruson knows its important to support multiple wireless technologies. For instance, Accenture supports only RIM and Microsoft Mobile technology for global cellular service and puts fewer restrictions on the device or carrier.

The software was the key differentiator for us, he says. I dont really care about the model device somebody equips themselves with, because those churn pretty frequently but the software doesnt.

Offices outside North America might also have wireless device preferences based on the locations level of adoption or the pricing plans available. In Europe and Asia, for instance, carriers dont offer unlimited data plans. Instead, users pay for every message unit, and text messaging costs less than e-mail messaging. So while BlackBerry devices have become ubiquitous among U.S. executives, in Europe, they are much less common because users have to pay per message. Its just the way the carriers price, Smith says. For this reason, she negotiated separate agreements for Stiefel on different continents starting with Sprint Nextel Corp. in South America and Cingular Wireless LLC in North America.

As part of each countrys pricing plan, Smith also considers the added services carriers offer. In Asia, for instance, customers can pay for tolls, parking or even newspapers through their cell phones.

We adapt by having policies on what can be expensed back through cell phones in different markets. If it would make my sales rep more productive on the road by doing that, then we would [allow it], Smith says.

Embrace emerging wireless devices.

Premiere Global Services Inc. has learned to deal with wireless diversity. The Atlanta-based on-demand software company coordinates wireless policies for its 2,200 employees in 18 countries. Last year, Premiere standardized its workforce on BlackBerries, using BlackBerry Enterprise Server software to deliver applications to the devices. But a smattering of employees around the world preferred Microsoft Windows Mobile 5 smart phones and Palm OS devices.

David Guthrie, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Premiere, says he could have put the clamps down and refused to support the devices, but instead he made sure that the companys e-mail exchange services were compatible with them. He developed specific applications for those devices that would enable them to print to a nearby printer or fax and instantly enter conference calls.

Although wireless diversity causes more work for IT, Guthrie sees it as a good thing within reason. Obviously, it makes it easier if you dont have to support [so many devices], but we have a lot of young, bright people in the organization who are gravitating toward newer technologies, and we want that culture, Guthrie says. We have to control as much as possible but at the same time not stifle the organization.

Employees wireless preferences also reflect the preferences of the companys customer base, he adds. So in some ways, it just helps push us a little earlier than we would have otherwise, Guthrie says. However, he warns, You have to be careful with standardization. You can stifle a lot of creativity within your organization, and a lot of productivity and efficiency.

Use multichannel access gateways or wireless application gateways.

Companies whose employees worldwide need to wirelessly reach back-end systems such as Oracle or SAP are moving toward multichannel access gateways or wireless application gateways. The gateways provide a buffer between the wireless devices and the back end, so users can swap out and migrate to the wireless technology. IT can alter the applications infrastructure without affecting end users.

New technologies are also emerging that let companies roll out applications to many types of wireless devices simultaneously. For instance, Volantis Systems Ltd. in Seattle offers a thin-client application server that lets companies project over a portal both consumer- and enterprise-based applications to 3,000 different devices.

The big guys, like SAP and Oracle, are innovating [similar technology], but they just cant keep up with specialty firms like Volantis, Clark says.

Deploy GPRS cards for globe-trotters.

There are some wireless technologies that are globally compatible but often expensive. Globe-trotting executives at Stiefel Laboratories use Global Packet Radio Service (GPRS) cards in their laptops. The PC card allows a notebook or BlackBerry to connect to the Internet across a cellular network and provides an 802.11b adapter in the same card. When users are in range of a public or private hot spot, they can connect at up to 11Mbit/sec. In the field, wireless connections can be made using GPRS or a slower Global System for Mobile Communications dial-up link.

It works pretty seamlessly from country to country, Smith says. But it can get fairly pricey. The GPRS card costs about $60, plus $70 per month for unlimited data use within the U.S. International use costs about $140 a month. For Smith, using her BlackBerry is a different story. When I travel overseas, I pay roaming charges, and my bill could be $500 to $700 a month, she notes.

Looking ahead, Apple Inc.s iPhone and the widening use of iPods for training will present new challenges for global IT departments, Smith says.

On the standards front, companies like Motorola Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and Sprint Nextel are already holding out the promise of WiMax and mobile WiMax. But dont hold your breath, Gartner says.

Our strategic planning assumption is in a best-case scenario that system would go into production in 2012 to 2015, Clark says. Contrary to what carriers would have consumers believe, fourth-generation wireless is not around the corner were still trying to pay for and fully utilize 3G.

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at stcollett@aol.com. See more about global mobile from our special report:

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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