June 13, 2005
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Field-Force Wireless Continues to Be a Hit

With all the attention on 802.11b networks for offices and campus environments, it's easy to forget the industry that was the vanguard for wireless technology: field forces trying to replace paper and telephones with one device that let them handle dispatch more efficiently and sometimes handle transactions such as report inventories, order parts, and verify job completion. Early versions of these technologies pioneered by FedEx and UPS used pager networks to send data back and forth, though at 9.6Kbps, the systems were slow and so just minimal data was sent. Today, cellular data networks let mobile systems transmit richer data, more like a desktop PC, and newer technologies such as Bluetooth allow other advantages.

For example, Raymond Handling Concepts, a forklift servicing company, recently equipped its 86 field technicians with Intermec 761 handhelds and a customized version of MobileFrame's forms-filling software so they could stop filling in paper service records that had to be retyped into the company's billing and customer records system each night. The handheld uses the CDMA cellular network to transmit servicing data to headquarters as soon as the customer has signed off on the job, making records update immediate and speeding up billing (and thus collections). But the handheld also has a Bluetooth radio in it that lets the field technician print a paper receipt for the customer at the customer's premises. The technician uses an Intermec PB50 mobile printer that is also Bluetooth-equipped to receive the print job.

Impact Marketing & Merchandising, an Australian newsstand distribution firm, took a similar route when it deployed a Dexterra application for field-sales reporting and merchandising. The effort reduced paperwork and the delays and errors that go along with relying on handwritten documents, plus let the company handle emergency requests it could not do previously, since field sales reps now had real-time access to distribution and customer data. The Dexterra system supports multiple clients, using a Web interface and XML for platform neutrality.

Later this year, Sears Canada expects to deploy a similar system as Raymond's and IM&M's using technology from Mobile Computing.

Public-safety agencies have also jumped on the mobile wireless bandwagon. For example, the Los Angeles Police Dept. is using an e-ticketing system developed by California Amplifier to read the magnetic stripes on drivers' licenses and photograph license plates, as well as print out tickets. The device uses an 802.11b connection to the police vehicle to transmit the ticket and driver information, and the police vehicle then relays it to the LAPD databases over a cellular network. Based on technology from Broadbeam, the Canadian Royal Mounted Police are using mobile devices that switch among various radio networks in a "dispatch-plus" system that automatically transmit incident information to police and sends police reports back.

And the District of Columbia has set up its own wide-area wireless network to connect ambulances, firefighters, hazardous materials teams, and police plus federal law enforcement to each other to allow data transmission of everything from surveillance video to chemical analyses of spills. The district has set up its own Flash OFDM wide-area network (which was much cheaper than relying on local carrier Verizon, says CTO Suzanne Peck), and may migrate to WiMax technology when that becomes commercially viable. The district is now working with counterparts at the other jurisdictions in Virginia and Maryland to expand the network and allow joint operations that include data sharing when needed, says D.C. deputy CTO Robert LeGrande. Each jurisdiction will control who has access to its specific resources, but the conduit will be a common one, he says.

A different example of field-force-oriented wireless deployments today is British Airways' effort to give 500 of its top managers wireless data access from wherever they happen to be. Unlike most field-force and sales-force mobile deployments, British Airways wanted its technology to be device-agnostic, so employees could use whatever mobile devices they chose. BA used Extended Systems' OneBridge Mobile Groupware software, which makes the corporate network mobile-savvy so it can communicate and format data as necessary for a variety of mobile devices, while working within the network's remote-access security and policy mandates. The BA deployment lets senior staff synchronize their email, calendar, and contact information from the corporate email server.

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at news@it-wireless.com.

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