There is something that just doesn't feel right about living in a Dilbert-style cubicle world. Fortunately, the growth of the Internet has made it possible for workers to shed their corporate tethers and venture out into the wide world beyond. Tens millions are doing just that, either working from home or as mobile workers using Wireless LANs and cell phones to stay hooked up.
It appears the office is now becoming little more than a place where employees call to get a connection to the network.
And all this mobile working is getting easier all the time. According to London's Informa Plc, the number of public hotspots worldwide will surpass 100,000 by the end of 2005. Analyst firm Gartner, Inc. pegs that number as closer to 120,000.
But there still is one major drawback. Executives don't want their mobile employees spending all their work hours in Starbucks just so they can get a connection.
''Wireless LAN coverage is limited to within a few hundred feet of an access point,'' says Allen Nogee, principal analyst for In-Stat/MDR. ''Coverage is getting better, but it will never reach the level of coverage that cellular networks provide.''
After many false starts, American telecoms are finally rolling out third-generation (3G) wireless networks. And that makes wireless computing available anywhere someone can find a phone signal.
''I can remotely administer the network from anywhere in the world as long as I have a good Internet connection,'' says Shane Avery, operations manager for Urban Display Network LLC in Henderson, Nev. ''But sometimes I am out where there is no Wi-Fi or there is no hardline connection, so 3G has really helped with that.''
Dial-up to DSL
While Wi-Fi coverage is just starting to become widely available, telecommunications firms have been rolling out their networks for decades. In the United States alone, wireless companies have a cumulative capital investment approaching $200 billion and nearly 200,000 cellular transmission sites, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. And each of those cellular towers covers a much broader area than a Wi-Fi hot spot. Globally, cell phone penetration is even higher.
At the same time, 3G networks take the established cellular infrastructure and boost transmission rates so they can be used for high-speed data access, not just voice transmissions. Earlier generations were similar to dial-up Internet connections. However, 3G is more like DSL. While this is still slower than what Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet offer, it is more than adequate for most users, particularly those accessing the network though a smartphone, PDA, blackberry or other device with limited screen size and processing power.
''Unless you are using a laptop with a cellular card, you are probably not going to see any speed difference between 3G and Wi-Fi,'' says Nogee.
There already are 50 million 3G subscribers worldwide, mainly in Japan and EU. But the trend now is starting to catch on in the U.S.
Sprint is finishing the roll-out of its EV-DO network (400Kbps to 700Kbps) in most metropolitan areas. Cingular uses a competing technology called Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE). Its network deployment is nearly complete, but its data rate only averages about 135 Kbps. In the meantime, it has begun deployment of a newer network called UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) with twice the performance. It will have it available in most major areas by the end of 2006.
As these 3G networks become broadly available, people will start to use them for more than just downloading ringtones, checking stock prices or finding out the latest sports results. UPS, for example, uses an EV-DO network to give 4,500 sales reps access to its customer relationship management (CRM) system.
''Our sales representatives spend nearly all of their time on the road,'' says Sheila Dunn, senior director for CRM technology at UPS. ''We wanted to provide them with the tools they need to be more effective when meeting with customers.''
UPS has given each of these representatives a Dell or IBM laptop equipped with a wireless PC cards from Novatel or Verizon which can access Verizon's EV-DO network. (Where EV-DO is not available, they still can connect, but at lower speeds.) The field worker and managers can log into UPS's custom CRM application to view prior customer interactions, as well as access five Web-based reporting tools, email, calendaring and other functions.
''With these tools, our sales reps can be more productive,'' says Dunn. ''They can spend more time dealing directly with our customers one-on-one rather than chasing information.''
Similarly, Urban Display's Avery doesn't just use 3G connections on his own laptop, but also for delivering the company's products. The company owns and manages a network of 79 LED video billboards in Manhattan which display commercials and other information. Inside each display is a computer equipped with a Sierra Wireless AirCard 5220 to connect to Verizon's EV-DO network. The initial trial involved downloading the ads to the billboards using Wi-Fi hot spots. But this proved to be unreliable, requiring sending technicians on excursions around the city to manually upload the content.
''It called for a lot more maintenance visits and 'sneaker netting' or updating content by physical visits rather than remote control,'' Avery explains.
When EV-DO became available, however, that support load greatly diminished. He says sometimes there still are issues the technicians need to deal with manually. For example, occasionally when Verizon's network goes down, instead of automatically reconnecting, technicians need to go out and click an on-screen dialog box to reestablish the connection.
Nevertheless, it is a huge step up from using Wi-Fi.
''Although it is not perfect, it is a lot more reliable and it has also allowed us to expand our service,'' Avery says. ''Now we can offer realtime data, such as sports tickers, stock tickers or weather information which updates every 10 minutes. Before, we couldn't guarantee anything better than once every 24 hours.''