Friday, April 24, 2009

The Impact of Current Wireless Trends on Mobile Field Operations

There has been a lot of press lately around the concept of open access to broadband warless networks. Much of this was fueled by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) decision to reclaim and auction off a portion of the 700MHZ radio band. When Google put their hat in the ring as a pontifical bidder and at the same time starting hyping their open source mobile operating system known as Andoid, the media hype hit a fever pitch. At roughly the same time the 700 MHZ drama was unfolding, QUALCOMM was working on a less hyped wireless broadband modem dubbed Gobi (Global Mobile Internet) that allows for connectivity to multiple broadband carrier network. Gobi is a shift from traditional broadband cards that where programmed by the manufacture to communicate with a particular carrier’s wireless frequency. So, in the past you had to decide which carrier you wanted to commit to before ordering your device, with Gobi that is no longer true.
There is no lack of press on what these developments mean to the fleet of mobile information workers dashing from hotel to air port lobby. But what does all this fast paced, sexy wireless technology innovation mean to Technology Managers responsible for large fleets of mobile, blue collar field workers using devices from non-consumer hardware manufactures such as Intermec? What will be the impact on cost structures for the technology that supports direct store delivery (DSD), shipping, field service repair etc...? I try to give some guidance on these points below.

How Does Open Access Help My Daily Operations?

The short answer (and the one always favored by consultants) is that it depends. Let me first briefly define what open access really means. When the FCC decided to auction off a portion of the 700 MHZ frequency it attached a small catch. Whoever won the bid would be required to allow ANY device to connect to the frequency. This has been compared to the Carterfone decision made by the FCC in 1969 that ordered the then telecommunications monopoly AT&T to allow consumers to buy any hand set to hook to the AT&T network. Prior to the Carterfone decision, the rotary handsets for homes where rented equipment from AT&T. So, companies like Verizon Wireless who had in the past had tight control over the devices that connected to their network would now be forced to loosen their standards. This means that any device that passes a set of standard tests outlined by the carriers would be allowed to connect. This is expected to open up a new round of innovation in devices such as water meters and vending machines, giving producers of these devices new communication options and the ability to build services around those options. So, the open access movement may in fact produce smarter field equipment that enables business to cut cost. Time will tell. What is the impact of open access on the current set of mobile devices you have in the field today being used for daily operations? Not much, nothing really. It is conceivable that over the next five years the open access of 3G network will make it attractive for niche hardware players to get into the ruggedized device market. So perhaps as you go to negotiate your next round of major hardware purchases you will have more options. The reality is however that the buzz around open access to 3G networks is really overplayed with respect to the traditional work horse devices such as Intermec and Symbol. As you can order most of these devices today programmed to connect to the carrier of your choice any real impact on your choice of devices in this market niche is probably five or more years away.

Gobi Devices are Coming

In late 2009 major manufactures of rugged mobile field devices may introduce Gobi broadband cards, allowing you to choose your provider through programming of the card. Now this is big news. Lets compare this to how things are done today. Today, you go through an analysis of which major carrier has the best average coverage at all of your field locations or service areas. You pick the one you think has the best coverage and negotiate contract terms. Once you agree on a wireless contract you order your devices with that carrier’s chipset. Let’s say your wireless contract is two years. At the end of that two years you have hundred or maybe thousands of devices in the field serving daily operations. Are really likely to switch out all these devices to move to another carrier? No, and trust me, your carrier is well aware of that fact. After your initial negotiation you really loose a ton of leverage when it comes time to renew. With the Gobi wireless cards, that all changes. Switching providers now becomes much less painful and thus you maintain some of your leverage in subsequent contract talks. You are also shielded against situations where carriers merge or get sold. Or maybe a new carrier comes online in a particular part of your geography that you want to use in that one warehouse. With the Gobi cards you can easily switch devices to that carrier. So, what impact does this development have on your current operations? Again the answer is not much. The Gobi cards should absolutely factor into your next round of hardware purchases however and if you are considering making a big purchase now it might even be a good idea to wait a few months.


Despite all the current media hype around open 3g network access and the Google mobile operating system the true impact on your current field operations is little to none. It is not likely that the open access rules enacted by the FCC will have short term impact on your procurement or platform decisions with respect to ruggedized field devices. The opportunity for long term innovation odes exist however and should be monitored. The advent of the Gobi technology from QUALCOMM will have significant future impact on the flexibility you have with respect to wireless broadband carriers. Again, the Gobi technology will hit the market in ruggedized devices in late 2009. If you are considering a hardware purchase now, the benefits of Gobi are great enough that you may want to consider waiting it out.

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