Mobile Business Part I: Wireless way gives wow factor

6 Oct 2004

After several fits and starts high-speed 3G mobile telephone services are finally a reality in Ireland. Vodafone Ireland is the first operator to offer a commercially available service in the form of a 3G version of its Mobile Connect Card that enables laptops and suitably equipped PDAs to send and receive data using 3G where available (currently major urban areas) or GPRS in other areas.

Vodafone has also announced plans to have 10 3G handsets on the market for Christmas, provided by manufacturers such as Sharp, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and Samsung. Vodafone is pitching them at consumers but its support for high-speed email and web browsing will make them popular with business users as well.

Although Vodafone has been first to market, fellow 3G licence-holder O2 Ireland says it is “building its plans around customer demand”. O2 says that it is fulfilling the needs of customers through GPRS or 2.5G as it is also known.

“2.5G accommodates the needs of most of our customers,” says Orlagh Nevin, head of business services with O2 Ireland. “Most users are just requesting small amounts of information. 3G will be great for content downloads such as games and video streaming, which will have a big consumer ‘wow’ factor.”

Nevin bases her assessment of GPRS on the fact that most businesses are using mobile technology to give workers remote access to enterprise applications.

Vodafone’s Chris Handley, product manager, business data products, Vodafone Ireland, does not paint such a sanguine picture of what’s available with GPRS. Security is a major concern for organisations providing remote access to their networks. The industry standard for providing such links is a virtual private network (VPN), which can tunnel private communications over the internet. Handley believes users of a VPN over GPRS have a fairly limited experience because of the bandwidth required to run a VPN smoothly.

“The value of increased bandwidth resonates most with business users, which is why we launched the data card first,” says Handley.

Although 3G can theoretically deliver speeds of 384Kbps and GPRS 56Kbps, in reality users are getting a throughput of 200/250Kbps with 3G and 30/35Kbps with GPRS.

He also believes that the introduction marks the arrival of mobile business services in the mainstream. “We’re moving from one-off solutions for vertical markets to a mass-market business proposition for a variety of horizontals.”

One thing that the mobile operators are agreed on is that email is currently the killer application. According to Petri Manninen (pictured), head of sales for business devices with Nokia in the EMEA West region, Nokia’s strategy is to provide email, calendaring and other basic PDA functionality as a baseline on all its business handsets.

“We provide a range of devices for a range of business needs — no one device can do it all,” says Manninen. “Increasingly people want to access information from their mobile phones — it’s natural because they have them with them at all times. Our messaging phones give you that access to email. If you go into heavy usage of mobile email — creating mail on the move rather than just skimming your inbox — we have the Nokia Communicator or a voice optimised phone that can work with your Bluetooth PDA,” he says.

In conjunction with the developments around mobile phone technology, business users have also begun to adopt Wi-Fi, which provides high-speed network access while users are in a public or private hotspot. Business users have embraced the flexibility of wireless local area networks but when combined with other forms of mobile access it really becomes a powerful business tool.

According to Handley, Vodafone will launch a version of its Mobile Connect Card in January which will add Wi-Fi capabilities to the mix. It will also launch its own Wi-Fi hotspots as well as agreements with existing hotspot providers such as BT OpenZone and The Cloud.

While Manninen believes the technology is in place today to make mobile business ubiquitous, other capabilities need to be in place to support enterprises becoming fully mobile.

“You need to be able to very tightly integrate into legacy systems,” he says. “Mobility is being built into back-end systems but it’s going to take a while before there’s widespread adoption.

“Security and device management are very important as well. How are you going to update the software on all these devices? How do you replace it if it is lost? These are the kind of challenges that we face.”

By John Collins

Next week: The mobile enterprise is here