Tuning in to wireless returns

The Computer Weekly/BT survey has revealed the widespread adoption of wireless technology among large organisations.

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The Computer Weekly/BT survey has revealed the widespread adoption of wireless technology among large organisations.

The in-depth research into the wireless capabilities of 403 large businesses sought to discover which wireless devices were being used, the future wireless investment plans of businesses, and what usage policies firms employed to manage wireless investments.

All respondents to the survey were at companies that had already adopted some form of wireless technology, whether using mobile phones or more advanced forms of wireless communication such as wireless local area networks (WLans) and mobile e-mail and instant messaging. Almost 80% of respondents were either IT heads or project leaders at their companies.

When asked what wireless devices their firms used, more than 50% of the respondents said their companies used at least four types of wireless device.

The most popular wireless device at firms was the wireless-enabled laptop, with 94% of respondents saying these were used. Such laptops include those able to access a corporate wireless Lan or public wireless hotspot outside the organisation.

These machines include devices wirelessly-enabled with on-board wireless chips such as Intel's Centrino technology, or PCs able to log into a WLan  with the use of an inserted WLan card.

Also included were laptops that can access a corporate network or the public internet via a 3G mobile network with a special data card sold by all four major UK mobile operators.

Mobile phones were used by 84% of firms, and as smartphones designed for the corporate market become ever more powerful with the ability to easily access business applications on a corporate network, the take-up of mobile phones with advanced combined data and voice capabilities is expected to increase further. 

Indeed, smartphones, which include the popular Blackberry device that allows users to automatically download their e-mail from corporate e-mail servers and web mail servers, were given their own category in the survey.

The survey found that 58% of respondents already used smartphones. Perhaps one surprising statistic was that 29% of firms still used pagers, over 10 years after the mobile phone became the main wireless tool in the business world.

When it came to procuring wireless technology, 94% of respondents said responsibility lay with IT/central procurement departments. In 27% of companies business managers had wireless procurement responsibilities, and at 8% of firms individual users were able to specify their wireless needs.

These statistics show that at a number of firms there is a significant mixture of central/departmental procurement occurring when it comes to purchasing wireless technology.

Maybe this is not surprising considering the niche nature of some wireless technologies and the specific wireless applications needed by certain business departments, such as sales, marketing, human resources and other areas of the business.

Gary Bullard, UK managing director of BT Global Services, said the involvement of business managers in wireless procurement was no surprise. "Quite a few organisations have lost the plot when it comes to acquiring wireless systems and quite a lot of wireless expenditure is sneaking under the radar without proper control," he said.

"A large number of organisations do not know what is being spent on communications and what is actually needed for business purposes. If you asked a number of chief information officers about what they spent on a growing range of communications, they would not be able to tell you. So the involvement of business managers in wireless procurement can often be necessary."

Despite the keenness of companies to invest in wireless, it was surprising to find that 29% did not measure their return on investment (ROI) from wireless purchases.

This might have something to do with the relatively recent availability of certain technologies, or because some of the many IT departments that have responsibility for rolling wireless are not integrated enough with the departments and end-users.

Bullard said, "At companies generally it is much easier to develop a business case for a new technology, as opposed to retrospectively going back and evaluating the success of it."

The companies that did measure ROI in the survey generally used increased productivity (53%), reduced operational costs (38%) and greater staff satisfaction (34%).

Another worrying finding from the survey was that although 62% of companies operated a wireless end-user usage policy, about 30% of companies did not. Considering the security challenges wireless working poses to companies, it was surprising to find that not all firms were keen to stringently protect their networks and mission-critical data when using wireless solutions.

Indeed, security was the main challenge respondents said they must tackle when using wireless, with 59% currently citing security as their biggest headache. Reliability (9%), cost (8%), and integration with back-end systems (7%) also featured among their concerns.    

"Mobile devices pose unique security challenges," said Jonathan Martin, chief marketing officer at PortWise, a provider of secure application access systems.

"The danger is that in the wrong pair of hands wireless devices provide an open access channel into a firm's applications. Wireless devices must be integrated into the overall security blueprint," said Martin.

BT's Bullard said that although some companies underestimated what travelled over a wireless network, others were "extreme" as to how they reacted to the potential problem.

Bullard said that combining secure ID token access, complicated virtual private network (VPN) dial-in procedures and user names and passwords often encouraged users to try to bypass data access procedures.

He said any security system had to offer an intuitive solution to both the users and the employer for easier management.  When it came to WLans, Bullard said an increasing number of firms were outsourcing the complete management of the systems to help ensure security and ease of use.

When it came to the applications used for existing wireless devices, 86% said e-mail, contact books and calendars were the most important things to access over wireless networks.

Basic web access (67%) and connectivity to corporate data via a secure VPN (56%) were the next two major reasons for going wireless.

In addition, 53% said access to business-critical applications like customer relationship management and enterprise resource management were being accessed.

As these latter applications demand a low level of network latency to be able to be used comfortably in over-the-air-networks, current 3G networks are not the ideal system to support them. High-latency 3G and GPRS mobile networks cause delays in the way data is delivered over a mobile network, therefore business applications often crash.

This was one reason many firms were slow to adopt wireless networks. However, the lower-latency, higher-bandwidth and proven ability of WLans to handle such applications is a major reason why more than 50% of firms have the confidence to use business applications over wireless networks.

When it came to the business reasons for introducing wireless technology, 83% said it was to enable flexible and remote working among staff. Increasing staff productivity (63%) and improving customer relations (20%) were other key business reasons for adopting the technology.

Bullard sounded a word of caution, however, when it came to wireless working casting an ever-growing net over the workforce.   "There are obvious business advantages for putting staff in touch with the business from almost any location and at any time, but employers must make sure that a proper work/life balance is introduced in the workplace - staff must be able to turn themselves off from the business." 

The Computer Weekly/BT survey also found that the future for wireless looks rosy, with 78% of companies intending to invest further in wireless, and only 20% "not sure" about it. Just 2% said they would not invest further.

Of those companies intending to invest, 90% said they would be investing in wireless-enabled laptops within the next year and a further 58% said they would be investing in this area in the next two years.

PDAs and handhelds were also popular, with 60% saying they would invest in these  over the next year, and 40% saying they would do so over the next two years.

Converged fixed-line and mobile handsets were another popular investment, with 19% of users planning purchases over the year.

The Computer Weekly/BT survey clearly found that the use of wireless technology at companies is now the norm, rather than the exception. However, some firms need to do more to evaluate the ROI on their wireless investments, and protect them with tight usage polices integrated with the rest of the business.

 

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