Mobile video could transform field operations

Mobile video has the potential to change the way roaming workers communicate with head office - but is being held back by poor wireless networks.

Mobile video has the potential to transform the way field service technicians interact with the back office, but wide implementations could be held up by the state of wireless networks and the cost of capable, rugged hardware.

"Ongoing training of field repair forces is a big, big job, and can certainly be a problem," said David Chamberland, an analyst with In-Stat. "If you can have one experienced technician acting as a remote control for several field techs, that's a huge deal."

While many proposed implementations in white collar environments have hazy value propositions, these field service applications of mobile video, whether streamed or pre-recorded, represent a potential measurable return on investment.

Already, several companies are evaluating video services or putting them into production. Qik, for example, lets users spontaneously start to stream live field video back to a central YouTube-like site, where it can be either publicly viewed or limited to certain users. Founder Bhaskar Roy said some companies had started to adopt the service to better explain problems in the field to the back office, but adoption in those cases is limited.

Chalk takes a different approach. Its mobile chalkboard service allows companies to push videocasts to BlackBerry phones. The videos can contain up-to-the-minute training, advice or technical information on products. The videos are downloaded rather than streamed, so field service workers can view them without a speedy 3G connection, as long as they're willing to wait for the download.

Elisabeth Herrell, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, said, however, that mobile bandwidth is holding back the really interesting applications.

"Our network is not optimised to support this today," Herrell said. "Once you have the network, you'll have the applications take off." That means waiting as companies like Sprint and Verison upgrade their networks to EVDO revision A, which is a speedier 3G connection, or even waiting until the 4G networks like WiMax and LTE come online over the next few years.

Some of the most useful communications applications can also be fairly simple, she said, and take place in the call centre. Letting an agent upload a video of a process he is discussing mid-call to a customer's mobile phone has obvious benefit. Even uploading a picture of the agent to the customer's phone at the beginning of the call can improve the caller's experience, allowing him to feel that he is getting more personalised service.

Herrell said some early implementations of just that were becoming popular in Europe. "It's very appealing to mobile consumers on normal operating devices."

Domestically, some networks, depending on the region, are robust enough to support limited deployments of video, Chamberland said. Vertical industries that could demonstrate a very clear return on investment as the technology builds out might benefit from being early adopters, particularly those which have field technicians working on very high-value, sensitive equipment or military and homeland security surveillance, where the cost of a several-hundred-dollar device is greatly outweighed by the value of instant video relays.

In other industries, wider mobile video usage is unlikely to take off for another two-and-a-half to five years, Chamberland said, and some projected usages may not take off at all -- particularly as businesses better understand what uses could, and could not, provide a real return on investment.

"The idea that I can replace a fax with a mobile device, that's great, and I get that," Chamberland said. "If I can replace a phone call with a video? I don't know about that. I don't see the value."

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