More speed for road warriors

10 Oct 2006

For the mobile worker, 2007 promises to be a watershed. While 3G and GPRS have enabled the on-the-road employee to access ever more sophisticated applications, it’s about to get a whole lot better. Faster networks, more devices and better solutions are on the way.

Chris Burton, solution architects manager at Vodafone Ireland, says it is the next phase in a market that is already mature. “Road warrior technology has been happening for a while; what we’re looking at is extending it further. The ongoing development of our platforms is crucial in terms of letting our customers do more,” he said.

The technology is question in HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access), launched soon by Vodafone as 3G Broadband, delivering quadruple the speeds of existing 3G. Initially the service will be in Dublin but the rollout will continue through Ireland’s cities and towns throughout 2007 as Vodafone overlays HSDPA over its existing 3G network infrastructure.

To date, Vodafone is the only operator to announce a launch date and give details of the product. The initial service will be capable of a 1.2Mbps download speeds with a 3.84Mbps uplink. Next year the downlink will rise to 3.6Mbps. The existing Vodafone data deal, a fixed price of €49.95 per month, will carry over to 3G Broadband.

The first product to support the network has been out for some time, HSDPA-compatible Mobile Connect Cards that plug in to laptops. PCs are also on sale with embedded HSDPA technology. To bring high-speed mobile data to more customers, Vodafone is also launching a plug-in device that allows other computers to be enabled, though details are still to be confirmed.

The potential impact of 3G Broadband on a business is enormous, according to Chris Burton. “It’s not just about email any more. Because it’s about more bandwidth, businesses will look at it and see if they can run business processes over it that they are currently running on their LAN [local area network],” he said. “There is no longer any impediment to making applications available to where they can be of most value to the business — with a salesperson or a service engineer on the customer site, for example.”

For businesses to harness 3G Broadband at a deeper layer there will be an element of integration. “They will need to optimise their processes and use a middleware solution,” said Burton.

With multiple customers sharing the same cell site, the fear is that the data speeds would drop dramatically. Burton has no doubt, however, that contention issues would not interfere with the basis service. “We have more sites where we have more people, and on a 3G network users are constantly moved from one site to another to maximise capacity,” he said. “There are very few business applications that won’t run well on a few hundred kilobytes. 3G Broadband will cater for the demand.”

O2 is the only other operator to confirm specific plans for HSDPA though it is yet to commit to a launch timetable. It will only confirm that it has showcased a service to its corporate customers and is about to start trials with some of them.

Billy D’Arcy, O2, head of business sales and services, says it will be a massive step forward for the market, giving ‘mobile warriors’ new levels of confidence in their devices. “It’s not so long ago that all we had was the GPRS network and nothing to fall back on. Now we have a situation where GPRS is the very stable underlying technology with EDGE and HSDPA on top of it,” he said. “Part of the HSDPA experience will mean that the service is able to drop down to the next level and the next level again, but the point is that there will always be a service.”

In the UK, O2 is launching its HSDPA service on 1 November and dedicated O2 data cards are already on sale. D’Arcy would only say that a national rollout in Ireland would gain momentum throughout 2007 and that plans for the product portfolio were well under way. “There’s a raft of new product coming and we’ve already seen interest in iPacs and Palms,” he says. “We have to take notice of what our customers want.”

As well as the faster speeds,- D’Arcy believes 2007 will see mobile business benefit from more choice around existing services. “”Push email is where it has to be for the convenience and efficiencies, and we’re going to see more options,” he said.

The rise of the RIM BlackBerry could be under threat from Microsoft. Both Vodafone and O2 will be working with Microsoft on more affordable push email offerings, while new Nokia phones have embedded Microsoft’s ActiveSync into their software to make it easier to share data between mobile and desktop devices.

The good news for the mobile worker is that the many different players who have high stakes in the market are starting to work together.

Wi-Fi enters new phase
On-the-road workers are already served with Wi-Fi hotspots, pay-to-use locations that enable laptops and personal devices to access much faster data speeds. “Wi-Fi is still a relatively new technology but has become a vital way to access the internet for people conducting business here in Ireland,” says Bitbuzz managing director Shane Deasy. “Laptop usage has soared as the working population becomes more mobile. They are a hugely powerful business tool but they need to be connected to the internet to deliver real benefits.”

With 35,000 registered users and over 100 hotspots, the Bitbuzz service is about to enter a new phase. Over the next year it hopes to see a transition from ad hoc users buying access when they need it to monthly subscriptions. “Most of our sales is on demand but we’re getting ready for the change as prices come down,” said Deasy. “People will increasingly be buying a month at a time to save money.”

Bitbuzz will be announcing its new pricing strategy in October.

HP is using the same technology in its range. Nolan [???] identifies the HP Compaq nc2400 as a state-of-the-art business notepad, pointing out that a widescreen display is now part of the feature set. “There is an advantage in terms of the amount of information you can fit on the screen, especially for spreadsheet users.”

Recognising possible pitfalls for travellers, both manufacturers offer three-year warranties whereby a broken laptop can be treated almost anywhere in the world. To reduce the damage possibilities, HP has a mobile data protection system. “It’s a sort of airbag for notebooks,” says Nolan.

Most laptops also come with Computrace installed, security and tracking software that locates the stolen laptop next time it goes online. The owner can then remotely delete data. “It is an important consideration,” says Nolan. “What concerns businesses when a laptop is stolen is not the hardware but the information on it.”

By Ian Campbell