Dashing to make a connecting flight, your company's star salesman just lost his new Treo Communicator at the airport. The combination phone/PDA (reviewed here, by the way) was loaded with customer data and details about a new product the firm is preparing to launch. If the device falls into the wrong hands, priceless intellectual property could be gone in an instant.

Setting clear guidelines on how employees acquire, use and return their wireless devices is critical to protect your company's assets.

Ramolo Pallini, director of networks, Internet technologies and telecom, at worldwide systems integrator Getronics in Boston, has done just that. Establishing policies for procurement of wireless devices and services let him get a handle on Getronics' 3,700 U.S. wireless users, which includes 2,200 mobile phones, 1,100 wireless pagers and 400 wireless data cards.

Employees previously bought their own mobile devices and services and filed expense reports for reimbursement. Two years ago, the firm centralised control by deploying Traq Wireless's Mobile Resource Management services. The Traq service lets Pallini keep a close eye on employee use and rate plans, and track devices with Traq's Asset Manager module.

Before reaping the benefits of Traq's services, Getronics established specific guidelines for procurement and usage of wireless devices. Pallini's group created a form for the corporate intranet that each employee who wants wireless service must fill out.

Users must answer questions about what cities and countries they travel to and how often. They also must specify if they want push-to-talk, wireless data or other features. Once a manager approves a user's request, Pallini's team finds the most appropriate device, service and rate plan.

"It's almost impossible to find a single provider to give you all the features and coverage you need," Pallini says. Getronics uses AT&T, Nextel, Sprint PCS, T-Mobile and Verizon for wireless voice; SkyTel and Arch Wireless for paging service; and almost exclusively uses Sprint PCS for mobile wireless data needs.

Do you really need that tri-band?
An employee's travel patterns help determine whether he should get a tri-band phone that would let him roam not only through the US, Europe or Asia. If the user only travels once a year, it might not be worthwhile to buy the more expensive phone. It is important to remember that US GSM services use a different spectrum band from European GSM services.

Rather than let employees buy phone equipment on expenses, Getronics buys it all, including phone accessories such as headsets, wireless modems, leather cases and even spare batteries. "We can buy better equipment at any given time because we have centralised purchasing power," Pallini says. "We're able to keep everyone pretty current."

Keeping death off the roads
However, one thing workers can't get from Getronics is a car adapter to charge their phones. The company prohibits cell phone use while workers are driving and maintains that giving users an adapter might encourage them to ignore the policy. "If employees buy a car adapter, it's at their own risk and liability," Pallini says.

Suppliers send phones directly to users, but also give the company a complete inventory. Some device information is updated automatically in Getronics' Asset Manager tool with electronic files the carriers supply, although others only provide reports that must be entered manually into Getronic's inventory.

Because every device is specific to a user and every user is specific to a cost centre, the tool is useful in tracking chargeback, when users need new phones and which devices need to be repossessed as employees leave the company.

Getronics' human resources department fills out a form for the IT department before conducting an exit interview with an employee. IT looks up the user and lets HR know which devices should be returned.

"Understanding what I have out there helps me take proactive action," Pallini says. "Often I'll go to one of our carriers and say we need an equipment refresh. I can do this because I know what we have out there. Before I had no clue, and it was too difficult to deal with."

Pallini chose Traq because the service was unique at the time, noting that it offers "the most intuitive tool and is easy to use. We've seen a 400 percent to 500 percent return on investment.

"The power of having the information ready at any moment is compelling," Pallini says.

"I use it when I negotiate with providers, talk with mobile users and for my own reporting tools."

What else is out there?
Companies that offer similar services include MSS Wireless, formerly Digital Reliance. Xcellenet's Afaria and Novell's ZENworks for Handhelds specifically offer management and tracking tools for PDAs or handheld PCs, and carriers provide some tools that analysts say aren't very sophisticated.

"Asset tracking is a critical first step in lowering wireless spend," says Michael Voellinger, wireless service director at Telwares Communications LLC, a consulting firm that helps business users negotiate contracts with service providers. The RFP process relies heavily on accurate baseline of wireless inventory, Voellinger says.

While wireless usage policies initially were established to control expense, Voellinger says they're now structured around mitigating loss. "A PDA full of proprietary information that's stolen could be a real nightmare," he says.

This analogy sums up the topic well. Wireless asset tracking is a lot like key control, says Brick Thompson, interim CEO at MSS Wireless - you do it not because you care about the cost of the key, but the cost of the key in the wrong hands.