High wireless acts

High wireless acts

Organisations ranging from corporates to cafés find business benefits and security concerns go hand in hand with wireless capability.

When commercial real estate firm Colliers International moved office in Auckland's central business district, management saw the opportunity to embark on a fresh start in technology. The timing was right too, for the post-Y2K upgrade cycle meant most of the IT hardware were to be replaced anyway. Colliers focused on the communications infrastructure after surveying employees how the new workplace could best be tailored to meet their needs.

IT manager Tony Allwood says the employees related they did not want to be too shackled to their desks. Their jobs demand instant communication with customers, as often, deals could be lost in a matter of minutes.

An analysis of calls to and from Colliers International showed most were made to landlines, with the greatest expense going to mobile calls. Frequently called numbers often went to voicemail and with staff often going to meetings, much time was spent clearing voicemail and playing telephone tag. The staff said they just wanted one device, rather than a cell phone plus a landline.

Allwood says the company considered IP telephony but the technology was then too new and the handsets were expensive. DECT (Digital European Cordless Telecommunications wireless handset) phones were another option but at the time of the rollout, in early 2004, the staff believed the technology was on its way out.

Thus, Colliers came up with a hybrid system involving Telecom and Vodafone. Known as Integrated talkZone, the new wireless system links Vodafone and Colliers' PABX. It enables the PABX to transfer incoming calls directly to mobiles in the same way as a landline, provide discounted calling rates and free calls among members on the plan.

All laptops and most desktops are now wireless, which Allwood says cut their total cost of ownership as it is now easier to move a desktop. Cable requirements were reduced.

Colliers won't say whether the extra cell phone use has increased total call costs, but Allwood says it would have been a hard sell to management had this been the case. Vodafone, which says Colliers is the first wholly wireless office system in New Zealand, would also have not carried out the work had it not offered the features and pricing Colliers wanted. For starters, the company looked to open standards to allow easy updates and wanted a centralised system at low cost. It wanted fixed prices to be transparent, and to be involved in design and implementation of the system.

Now, staff can be contacted at all times, so deals are not lost because of time issues. Staff also save time by using their mobile to clear and respond to email, while management could reach them quicker.

It is hard to give an ROI on the project, says Allwood, except to say it gives Colliers an edge over rivals and helps them win deals.

"Gains won't always be tangible, you won't always have the luxury of justifying saved minutes, but the gain is the edge in the marketplace."

Colliers is now looking to see how broadband "in the field" will offer "work anywhere" and the same information to staff as in the office. This, says Allwood, is "the final piece of the puzzle"

Vodafone, one of Colliers' major partners in the shift to wireless, is practicing what it preaches and is going fully mobile. Staff in its new office in Auckland's viaduct basin do not use landlines. In the coming months, Vodafone will take the concept further. "Staff will be seated according to their mobility and seated (or not in some cases, like sales managers) accordingly," says Leigh Owens, Vodafone communications executive.

"As a consequence, we will be providing far less work stations in the new building to staff which is common sense, really, when you walk around the current office and find at least one-third of the stations empty at any time."

A new revenue stream

While Colliers and Vodafone cite efficiency and savings as main benefits of the move to wireless, other organisations find there is another type of gain from such a shift - the opening of new revenue streams.

At the lobby of Auckland's Stamford Plaza hotel, for instance, guests pay $5 for 30 minutes of 10 Mbps wireless broadband. IT manager Rakesh Chandra says the system cost a few hundred dollars to install since the hotel had existing broadband networks. The project has since paid itself back in six months. Stamford is now looking to extend wireless services into other parts of the five-star hotel.

Chandra implemented the system after consulting with the CEO and other hotel managers. RoamAD was chosen after Telecom got back to them too late.

However, Telecom is enjoying success elsewhere, with a nationwide rollout of broadband 'hotspots' at the end of 2004 across the nation's 36 Starbucks outlets.

Kerry Cross, IS manager of Restaurant Brands, which operates Starbucks in New Zealand, says the company trialled Reach Wireless but Telecom offered a 256k solution that was cheaper and offered a bigger market penetration. Despite claiming a successful uptake in the Starbucks offering, there are no plans to offer wireless at its Pizza Hut and KFC outlets.

"Anybody with Xtra can use our system. Starbucks is associated globally with hotspots and this was something we were looking to do. It saved on marketing dollars (as Telecom also markets the service), it was offered at no cost to us, and it is working well, drumming up extra trade. Telecom also manages the solution and the impact on our IT systems is minimal," Cross adds.

Then, there are 'hotzones', inner-city areas of high-speed wireless connectivity created by broadband suppliers. Auckland has RoamAD and Wellington has CityLink and its CafeNet service, with RoamAD also creating smaller zones in the Hawkes Bay and other centres.

Overall, New Zealand has some 300 wireless hotspots, with 200 built by Telecom. By late March, the country expects to have 650 such hotspots nationally, with Telecom behind 450 of them.

Already, some 40,000 wi-fi-enabled devices, such as laptops and hand-held devices, operate in New Zealand, with predictions of the country having 100,000 Centrino-enabled laptops by the year-end.

Telecom's head of wi-fi Services Paul Stoddart told the recent Wireless New Zealand Summit 2004, 40 per cent of New Zealand businesses will deploy wireless LAN or hybrid wireless LAN systems this year, representing some 120,000 businesses.

Though 18 months behind Europe and the USA, New Zealand is at the base of an upswing that in a few years will see wireless mobility as pervasive as email and cell phones are today, he states. In addition to email, people will use wireless to download data, such as doctors accessing patient notes, or sales staff checking delivery orders.

Tales of caution

However, the wireless path could be littered with risks. Telecom's Stoddart and others warn of security concerns, as many LAN operators don't always secure their networks by installing sufficient numbers of firewalls and creating virtual private networks. Furthermore, as the number of users increases, the quality of the signal will diminish, creating noise and interference. Thus, rather than boosting the power of their networks, Stoddart advises IT managers to use specialist software to prevent or curb such interference.

Dealing with a wireless LAN can be a hassle, which is why, in addition to its $10 a day CafeNet service for regular single-person users, Wellington-based CityLink encourages organisations in the capital to join its gigabit-core network.

Development manager Carl Penwarden says many firms simply 'plug and play' and leave their networks open. Instead, firms should either use encryption to create virtual private networks or they can bring the CityLink public network into their business.

This entails attaching their system to the CafeNet network, turning on their VPN software in their laptop, connecting them to their office LAN, which uses a firm's existing VPN, giving staff secure access to their business wireless.

The march to wireless is likewise making a mark in the education sector. Six months ago, Auckland University of Technology enlisted RoamAD and Reach Wireless to launch what is claimed to be New Zealand's first tertiary campus public access wi-fi hotzone.

Wendy Bussen, AUT GM of operations and services, says many visitors to the university want to check their email as they would when visiting Starbucks. Overseas students were also demanding wireless access, so they can easily contact home.

"Reach Wireless had a business model which they shared with us. We thought it was a tidy model, easy to use, and it was given to us on a plate. A small company came to us with something similar but they were not as developed in terms of support and the 'big boys' weren't interested,"Bussen explains.

A wi-fi cocoon

The system uses the university's own internet pipe, but RoamAD supplied additional networking equipment and related software to create a 'cocoon' of wi-fi on campus. It also linked with Reach's Auckland City wi-fi zone, allowing seamless roaming between them.

"Publicity around Reach alerted us to the fact they were in the market. It wasn't an RFI [request for information] system, but we evaluated a variety of vendors. The AUT is approached regularly and my phone is red hot daily [with business propositions]," she says.

Registration is free and online, with Reach Wireless handling billing. Students and staff receive discounted rates for mobile VOIP and wireless data access up to 2Mbps.

Bussen claims take-up has been better than expected. There is no evidence yet as to whether wireless is being used to improve studies and educational achievement but research on this subject is being planned.

While just 200 out of 27,000 students use the Reach system, Bussen says students can access other college wi-fi and internet systems. "Anything that adds to service is good for our customers and good for our business," Bussen quips, though declining to comment on the revenue share.

At St Kentigern College, ICT provides a 'point of difference' in the private education market. The Pakuranga, Auckland-based college installed a wireless LAN in 2001, which has been constantly improved and expanded and is now being used by 1750 students. The school is now considered the largest wireless LAN installation in the country.

ICT director Walter Chieng believes this ICT use gives its students an edge. Using laptops in class teaches students about self-motivation and encourage them to push the boundaries of self-learning, he states. With wireless access, students can also move from class to class, without having to constantly log on and off. The school can also "monitor the airwaves" and blocks access to certain sites.

Looking back, Chieng says wireless has changed how the school works and St Kentigern would grind to a halt if it did not have wireless.

For organisations considering the wireless route, Chieng says the 'key deliverables' are always on, ease of service, robustness and security.

Would-be adopters should plan well, study potential benefits, not get confused about security issues and should seek an appropriate partner.

St Kentigern, he says, is now looking at Skype and VOIP. Reselling services to parents, like filesharing and security are also being considered, to generate revenue, though, he adds, "We are not to become an ISP."


How to manage expanded wireless capability in your organisation.

Why staff input is vital when planning for wi-fi installations.

What security threats companies can face with wireless capability.

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