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Learning From the Past

With the introduction of 1xRTT and GPRS, the mobile phone companies have decided to take a different approach. The goal is to avoid any type of 'lunch bag letdown.'

January 1, 2003  

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Over the past year or so, Canada’s four national providers of digital wireless phone service have introduced their customers to packet-based, high-speed data. Bell and Telus are using technology called 1xRTT, while Microcell and Rogers have rolled out GPRS.

The acronyms are only important to the carriers. For most customers, the only concerns are network performance (including reliability and data speeds) and whether there are any applications compelling enough to justify the cost of subscribing to wireless data services.

These services don’t cost much, but they’re competing against all-we-can-eat high-speed data via DSL or cable modem and services such as Web-based e-mail that can be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet.

When the four national mobile phone companies introduced Personal Communications Services (PCS) in the late 1990s, one of the key selling points was the promise of data services. However, users of the first applications suffered from “lunch bag letdown”. Services such as news headlines, sports scores, weather reports and horoscopes were entertaining when they were introduced, but the information they provided was sketchy and widely available elsewhere.

How many of us really need a six-word weather forecast pushed to our phone, when a much more detailed forecast is available in the newspaper, on the radio, on TV (where a whole cable channel is devoted to this), on the Internet… you get the picture.

Hopefully, that’s changing. With the introduction of 1xRTT and GPRS, the mobile phone companies have taken a different approach. All are working closely with applications developers to create services that recognize and exploit the unique strength of wireless; namely, that wireless service follows the user everywhere and so enables timely access to data. Here are a couple of examples of such services:

A number of real estate boards have partnered with wireless companies to deliver Multiple Listings Services to agents equipped with mobile phones and wirelessly-connected PDAs or laptops. In hot real estate markets, alerts to these devices mean agents can serve their clients better by letting them know immediately when a desired property comes on the market;

Courier companies are discovering that text-based dispatching improves efficiency by eliminating the possibility of the courier making a mistake when writing down instructions given by voice. As the company has to key in the information for billing purposes anyway, no extra work is involved;

Field service personnel can immediately update trouble tickets, check inventory for parts, consult with their colleagues and so on from the job site;

Sales people, who spend much of their time waiting to see clients, can check and respond to e-mail from other clients and colleagues, turning time that would otherwise be wasted into an opportunity to increase productivity and improve customer satisfaction;

Public utilities and municipal services are equipping their fleets with vehicle tracking and other data services. Beyond improving dispatching and fleet management, these services can include personal security alarms that improve the safety for employees working in the field, and performance-monitoring services that can alert fleet managers to potential problems before the vehicle breaks down.

In each example, the applications developers are targeting users whose work requires them to be highly mobile, and they’re creating services that clearly offer value to those users. If receiving Multiple Listings Services on a PDA enables a real estate agent to sell one more property per year, the service has paid for itself many times over.

Similarly, the money saved through preventative vehicle maintenance and more efficient dispatching makes wireless fleet management services a no-brainer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of these wireless data applications were developed in response to expressed needs, or even suggestions, from users. With new, packet-based data networks across Canada, any company with a mobile workforce — no matter how small — should be examining how that workforce conducts its business, and asking itself how wireless connectivity could help make more money, save more money, or work in a safer environment.

Those looking for help with this can draw upon the experience of wireless-savvy consultants, applications developers, equipment vendors, the network operators themselves, and the many trade publications that track and report on wireless developments.

As with almost everything, knowledge begets opportunity.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached at 416-878-7730 or

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