Companies are adopting wireless technologies in greater numbers as they try to stay connected to workers who are in the office less and in front of customers more. This brings up a number of daunting issues - from device administration to service-level consistency. The issues all came into focus at the recent CTIA Wireless 2005 conference in New Orleans.
Keeping control of devices
IT managers need to monitor, manage and secure these devices as if they were hard-wired to a desktop within the company. And they must do so while keeping the number of mobile devices and the associated expense to a minimum as wireless applications, standards and technologies continue to evolve.
"Who carries one device and has it do everything they desire?" Sprint executive vice president Kathy Walker asked rhetorically during a conference session on the industry migration to 3G technologies.
Walker's query reflects the hurdles and questions facing the industry as it attempts to take enterprise mobility beyond just wireless voice and e-mail, two applications that typically require at least two devices (for other reasons, too). One mobile device per user is hard enough to manage, let alone two. Add to that the tendency of mobile workers to purchase their own handsets and wireless services for business and personal use, and the management task for IT can take on increasing complexity.
"The biggest issue is policy and security," says Ellen Daley, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Do I allow devices that somebody just buys to connect to my network? Are they compliant from an operating system and application perspective? Do I scan and quarantine them if they don't comply?"
Another consideration is whether the devices enable seamless roaming between the company and carrier network, or between different carrier networks. Many large corporations are deploying IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi wireless LANs internally, while the wireless WAN is migrating from 2G and 2.5G standards to 3G technologies.
Can you pull the user experience together?
"An often overlooked point is that enterprises are still in a three-, four- or five-carrier environment," says Michael Voellinger, vice president of wireless services for Telwares, a telecom consultancy. "You need to look at where the market and technology is going, and who you are working with. You need a consistent platform and experience."
Dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular mobile devices exist, but they are costly and have a shorter battery life because they support two radio antennas - one for Wi-Fi and the other for the particular cellular technology employed by the carrier. And if that cellular technology is 2G or 2.5G, the handset could become obsolete if users want to take full advantage of the 3G capabilities coming from their carrier.
Obsolescence is par for the course for Nova-Sol, a government contractor in Hawaii with a mobile workforce.
"The life span of a cell phone is a year anyway," says Jim Miller, director of technical resources. "But we don't have to throw 80 away and buy 80 new ones, because not everyone needs the latest and greatest."
When can we really do mobile VoIP?
But Wi-Fi-to-cellular handoff might introduce transmission delays, which would disrupt a service such as mobile VoIP, considered one of the upcoming killer applications for untethered corporations.
Intel is grappling with these issues. The company is embarking on a mobile VoIP project for a 5,000-worker campus that encompasses Wi-Fi within the company and Wi-Fi/3G/WiMax in the wide area. "Open questions" regarding mobile VoIP include QoS, roaming and security, says Joaquin Sufuentes, director of e-Business and IT in the wireless networking group at Intel.
"How do you secure something that crosses networks?" he asks.
Security is in flux
Complicating matters is that Wi-Fi security standards are still in flux. Wi-Fi Protected Access, which uses Temporal Key Integration Protocol encryption, is evolving into 802.11i, which uses Advanced Encryption Standard. And on the horizon is 802.11r, which is intended to enable fast, secure handoff between Wi-Fi access points to overcome the delay and QoS degradation inherent in authentication.
Intel also is investigating user/device-to-access point coverage characteristics and requirements for mobile VoIP, an issue that hits home with other mobile users. RKA Petroleum Companies in Romulus, Michigan, uses BlackBerry e-mail devices and GPS on a Nextel service to communicate with its fleet of truck drivers.
The system is fine for wireless e-mail but slow for opening server or database files, says Jason Hittleman, vice president of IS at RKA. The company is evaluating higher-speed - 11 Mbit/s and 54 Mbit/s - Wi-Fi service but hasn't deployed it because of coverage gaps, he says.
"When you look out there, there are still a lot of dead spots, still a lot of open space," Hittleman says. Lack of ubiquitous coverage also tables any plans the company might have for mobile VoIP.