Globe-Trotters

Perplexing wireless protocols and the prospect of device theft make world travelers tricky to support.

In the past few years, taking wireless devices outside the U.S. has become commonplace -- but hardly seamless. Mobile phones, of course, routinely globe-trot with their owners. However, few companies appear to have addressed the unusual support needs of end users traveling overseas. The state of international support for notebook computers and key business applications is a take-what-you-can-get shoulder shrug.

Leo Fields, director of network services at Crowley Maritime Corp.

Leo Fields, director of network services at Crowley Maritime Corp.

Image Credit: Preston Mack

But that can't last. Research firm IDC foresees 878 million remote workers worldwide by 2010, and an increasing number of them will have sophisticated support needs.

"The execs just know that if their phone works, they should be able to get e-mail. The rest is up to us," says Leo Fields, director of network services at Crowley Maritime Corp. in Jacksonville, Fla. The shipping company's sales staff and senior executives frequently travel to ports in Russia, Korea, Western Europe and particularly Central and South America. Fields says Crowley's mobile devices of choice are smart phones -- his group supports more than 100 users of Palm Treo 600s and 650s.

It's true that the IT group must take the lead on international wireless connectivity; business travelers face enough challenges without fretting about per-megabyte charges in Brussels. Here are some tips from support professionals and analysts on what IT should know about the unique needs of international end users.

Standards and Security

802.11g. Millions of users' devices still rely on the "b" version of the IEEE's 802.11 Wi-Fi standard. That's OK in the U.S., but in other parts of the world, users may run into compatibility problems. Any user who is planning significant international travel should be upgraded to 802.11g.

Craig Mathias, Farpoint Group analyst and computerworld columnist

Craig Mathias, Farpoint Group analyst and computerworld columnist

Security. Mind the basics. Before end users leave the office, it's a good idea to review security best practices with them and "make sure they do all the meat-and-potatoes security things," says Farpoint Group analyst and Computerworld columnist Craig Mathias. With laptops, he adds, "turn on the firewall, turn off file sharing and [peer-to-peer] wireless. These are the things users will completely forget about until there's trouble."

Also remember that there's a good chance mobile devices will end up lost or stolen. Martin Gutberlet, a Gartner Inc. analyst, says all remote devices should be password-protected for this reason. "In the U.S., it's common not to have a PIN on your mobile phone," he says. "But this is an invitation to disaster." For the same reason, data on laptops and smart phones should be encrypted.

When the IT group at Crowley Maritime needed e-mail access for the company's 100 users of Palm Treo 600s and 650s, security was a major appeal of Good Technology Inc.'s e-mail access product, GoodLink Enterprise Edition. "The traffic is automatically encrypted, and that was important," Fields says. "And if a device is lost, you can [remotely] disable it and wipe out all the data."

Global crossings. For the most part, traveling today with a wireless computing device is painless as far as customs goes. But there are exceptions, and of course you never know when a particular nation will crack down. For example, Mathias says Singapore is a country "that may want to know what's on your hard drive." That means users should make sure their PCs are squeaky-clean when traveling overseas.

One globe-trotter who wishes to remain anonymous says that on a recent domestic flight, he began flipping through his laptop's My Pictures folder. Nestled among the snapshots of his wife and kids was a long-forgotten pornographic picture. The user admits to viewing the image at an adults-only Web site but had no idea how it had been downloaded to My Pictures.

"The shame of it is, I had an aisle seat," the red-faced exec says. "I'll never know if any of the other passengers behind me saw it." Had he been on a flight bound for a country cracking down on pornography, that would have been the least of his worries.

The bottom line is, make sure your end users understand how to clean up their PCs (including their browser caches) and why that's important.

Phone home. From an end user's point of view, cell phone service should be utterly transparent. But that isn't yet the case. For example, "if you have a U.S. subscription for a CDMA phone, it won't work in Europe," Gutberlet says, referring to the Code Division Multiple Access protocol. The elderly CDMA One standard, still common in U.S. cell phones, has been supplanted across the pond by the Global System for Mobile Communications standard, known as GSM, as well as other third-generation (3G) wireless protocols.

Additionally, mobile network frequencies vary from country to country; a cell phone that runs on an 800-MHz network in the U.S. may not work on Europe's 900-MHz networks. This problem has largely been solved because virtually all newer phones come with the ability to run on at least three frequencies, but it's worth checking before end users travel.

When in roam. End users (and accountants) accustomed to generous domestic calling plans receive a shock when traveling abroad. Roaming charges for both voice and data can border on the absurd -- people using 3G data cards may pay as much as $18 per megabyte of downloaded data, Gutberlet says. He suggests that end users skirt the expense by seeking out Wi-Fi hot spots. "And if you know where [your company's end users] travel most, it's possible to negotiate a discount with your carrier for, say, your top five locations," Gutberlet adds.

To end-run voice roaming charges (which can reach a couple of dollars per minute -- even for incoming calls), Mathias says users may want to buy prepaid phones overseas and simply pay local rates. The inconvenience of the temporary phone number is more than offset by the savings, he says.

Supporting end users wherever they travel is a new frontier for IT groups, but Fields says it's rewarding. "Our users are very happy with their e-mail access," he says. "Of all the IT projects we've done, this was the best received."

See the complete Faces of Mobile IT special report.

Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southboro, Mass. Contact him at steve@ulfelder.com.

Special Report

The Faces of Mobile IT

Different types of mobile workers, such as road warriors, telecommuters and blue-collar workers, need different forms of IT support.

Stories in this report:

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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