When to Go Wireless

It's fast, it's convenient, and it'll cost you. But more and more, state and local municipalities are going wireless as a way to push real-time data into the hands of users out in the field and on the go.

Take the state of New Jersey's new Parking Authority Ticketing System. Parking enforcement officers can write tickets and check violations and warrants in about three seconds from their handheld Intel Corp. 486-based computers loaded with radio modems. The program will cost the state about $5 million over a three-year period, but once all the streamlining is done, it will yield a turnaround of about $1 million, said Steve Monetti, president of the New Jersey Association of Parking Authorities&Agencies and executive for the Fort Lee Parking Authority.

That's the kind of response time, efficiency and payback that is making wireless a more realistic option these days. Sure, the price of investment isn't always right, and the options are convoluted; just try sifting through the alphabet soup of wireless technologies. But wireless is slowly beginning to replace the status quo of the same-old, same-old, disjointed, multistep data entry process in the law enforcement, maintenance and utility fields.

"Our biggest competitor is lethargy -- the data-entry person and the old method of handwriting parking tickets and placing them on the windshield," said Jack Gorman, regional manager for indirect channels at Woodbridge, N.J.-based RAM Mobile Data, a wireless service provider.

No one considers wireless a replacement for wired networks, just an adjunct. Most wireless data implementations have some wireline connections too, beyond the field user's mobile computer and radio modem. So how do you know when to forgo the wires? The basic formula is simple: The information must be time-dependent and critical. If it can wait for an upload or download or an e-mail, it's better off on a local-area network or other wired solution. "If this information can wait until it can get to a wired application, there's not a terrific return on investment to using wireless technology," Gorman said.

Early users of wireless data services and products are prototypical, real-time mobile workers such as law enforcement officers and field technicians. Most traditionally have relied on voice radio dispatches or plain-old paper for their assignments. Now wireless is changing the way they do their jobs. For example, when service technicians for San Francisco-based Pacific Gas&Electric start the ignitions in their trucks every morning, they also log onto their ruggedized 486-based laptops mounted on the console to check their daily service orders.

"A call center service rep takes the order electronically, and it goes to a dispatcher who validates it and hits 'Enter' on his desktop system, which recommends which field technician gets the order," said Tony Durante, director of information systems for PG& E and project manager of the service application, which has been operational for about nine months. "This goes over a leased line and then onto the wireless data network and into the truck."

There are now some 1,500 gas and electric utility trucks equipped with these wireless computers, which receive their service orders over the wireless network. Once the service technicians complete an order, they transmit the results to the utility's mainframe-based customer information system for billing and other information-with those results passing from the wireless network and through a leased line to the mainframe. Everything is done in real time, starting with the customer's call about a service disruption or a new hookup. Aside from providing its customers with information about their service instantaneously, this arrangement also lets PG& E bill faster.

PG& E's Durante prefers to keep the utility's cost data confidential, but he said he expects to see a return on investment in about three to four years. "We were able to streamline our customer request process to four to five steps" from about 15 steps, he said. One of the many manual tasks eliminated by this real-time application was the sorting and filing paper, for instance.

Choosing a Technology

How do you decide among the menu of wireless data technologies: packet radio, cellular digital packet data (CDPD), personal communications system (PCS), satellite and specialized mobile radio (SMR)? Even with all these choices, the circuit-switched voice cellular network, warts and all, today remains the most popular data transport, mostly because it's there, and voice customers just add a data modem and a laptop to the mix.

But for those organizations that are serious about untethering their users, wireless data networks that transmit data only are more reliable than cell phone networks. And there's the wireless LAN too, for campus-type applications or buildings that are too old-and therefore too costly-to wire for Ethernet.

Packet Radio

Proprietary packet-radio networks from Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Ardis and from RAM Mobile Data are popular because their service footprints cover about 90 percent of the nation's population, according to industry analysts. Ardis is faster, at 19.2 kilobits/sec, and it offers in-building coverage too, but it's a bit pricier: from $19.95 for 20K of data to $190 per month for 750K. RAM Mobile Data's network service is 9.6 kilobits/sec and is priced at 39.5 cents per kilobyte, or 1,000 characters of data. Satellite wireless data service can be as much as $1 per packet.

"We get a lot of people asking for CDPD," said Thomas Welch, chief information officer and senior vice president of Paradigm4, a New York-based wireless integrator and outsourcing company. "We provide RAM service too because it's the best price and coverage."

CDPD, meanwhile, is competitive with RAM in terms of pricing, but it's also newer and faster at 19.2 kilobits/sec. CDPD also is considered one of the more promising technologies due to its inherent support for the popular Internet Protocol (IP) and its ties to the existing cell network infrastructure. PCS is still very specific to certain areas and regions, and to date it hasn't been the choice of many local and state governments, and SMR is still on the pricey side with only Nextel as a national provider today.

Decision Factors

The main factors to consider when choosing among wireless data services are coverage, throughput, the size of the data message that will be traveling over the service and cost, as well as the types of modems that support the service and power requirements, said Veronica Williams, an independent consultant with Act Inc., South Orange, N.J., and author of the Wireless Computing Primer, which is a guide to wireless and mobile computing.

Sometimes you need to mix and match a little. PG& E chose a combination of RAM's service and a satellite-based network from QualComm Inc. because of the varying terrain in its region, which includes the redwood forests and foothills of California's Sierra Mountains. "In remote areas where there were no base stations or coverage by RAM, we had to go with satellite," PG& E's Durante said. Satellite service covers about 35 percent of PG& E's wireless data network. The rest is all RAM's packet radio, which Durante said PG& E chose because it was based on a mature technology. "We wanted to go with proven technologies. We didn't want to be a beta test site," he said.

Durante said there is a noticeable difference in response time in the satellite network. "When you have to go up 22,000 miles and go down, it takes a little longer," he said of the satellite feed.

For the city of Pittsburgh, going with CDPD for its wireless data service was a matter of economics. The city didn't have the funds to properly upgrade its existing voice radio system to accommodate packet radio for data; such a transition would have cost about $3 million, said Steve Schmitt, Pittsburgh's chief information officer.

"We believe that because of the economies of scale with so many people on the cellular network, it will be better for us to tag off the consumer market as opposed to building our own [radio] network," Schmitt said. Pittsburgh pays about $50 per month per unit and initially is offering the service to its police officers, who use ruggedized 486-based laptops to run license-plate checks on motorists whom they pull over for driving infractions or other reasons. But the network -- a combination of AT& T Wireless and Bell Atlantic/Nynex services -- likely will be expanded to Pittsburgh's parking authority, public works and geographic information system, Schmitt said.

The CDPD service does have its hiccups in the hilly areas of the Western part of the state. "The carriers are constantly adjusting their antennas to cover those areas," Schmitt said.

Wireless LANs

Sometimes it's the indoor conditions that prompt a wireless data solution. The Chicago School Board chose a wireless LAN solution for a pilot that would "wire" its older school buildings.

"Some of these buildings are 80 years old and had some electrical problems," said Richard White, director of the city's Department of Learning Technologies. "We were looking to wireless to get state-of-the art access to the students," he said.

The key was to bring the computers, which are mobile carts of wireless laptops, to the classrooms rather than have students traipsing over to a remote lab. This approach also gave teachers a new tool for their lessons. White admits that he was skeptical about how well the wireless LAN, a Lucent Technologies Bell Laboratories' WaveLAN, would transmit through the thick walls of many of Chicago's older schools, such as Irving Park Middle School, one of three schools involved in a pilot of the network. "We picked three different schools with differing architectural styles," White said. "This pilot showed us [that] wireless would work across different buildings of different age periods."

Wireless LANs aren't much less expensive than wireless wide-area networks; the school system paid $200,000 for each school. The equipment for each school included about 15 Pentium-based laptops for the mobile labs, the WaveLAN devices and an antenna. Wiring each of the buildings for a traditional LAN would have cost three to four times as much as the wireless solution, said Mallar Solai, president of Solai&Cameron, the value-added reseller that put together the wireless LAN for the schools. Another plus was that unlike a shared 10 megabits/sec Ethernet LAN, with which you don't actually get the full pipe, you do get all 10 megabits/sec bandwidth in a wireless 802.11-based LAN, Solai said.

Most wireless networks eventually hook up with some physical wiring. Irving Park Middle School's Pentium-based Novell Inc. NetWare file server has a wireless modem linking it to the LAN, but it also is connected to a T-1 line that provides the school's physical link to the Internet. And like PG& E's mix of airwaves and wiring, Pittsburgh's CDPD wireless network actually jumps off to a land-line connection just before hitting the city's 911 message system, which is a Stratus Computer Inc. computer.

"The wireless connection goes from the [squad] car to the towers of the cell system and then into the Stratus box by a dial-up, land-line connection," Schmitt said.

Follow Their Lead

So how do you select, purchase and run such a network without wires? If you're not sure what to do, you can take Pittsburgh's lead and outsource the job. The city commissioned Paradigm4 to run its entire wireless operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Outsourcing solves the two biggest hurdles with wireless data: the cost and the complexity issues, according to John Bay, Paradigm4's chief executive officer.

His company's operations center, called Advanced Data Collection Outsourcing (ADCO), works much like a services outsourcing network. Paradigm4 charges $187 per month to do all the network duties.

"We decided to take all the pieces we had built over the years and integrate them into a data center," Bay said. ADCO cost Paradigm4 about $1 million in hardware and $3 million to $5 million in software development. "If you want to build something from scratch, that's the kind of money" involved, he said.

But the main issues for wireless data users are that the network should be transparent and reliable, Pittsburgh's Schmitt said, "because the network will change, but the application stays the same."

Kelly Jackson Higgins is a free-lance writer and editor based in Stanardsville, Va. She can be reached at kjhiggins@aol.com.

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