Conventional wisdom has it that the implementation of wireless local area networks is best suited for specialized vertical operations such as logistics or manufacturing. In those cases, wireless LANs (WLANs) provide specialized, hosted functionality to roving employees equipped with handheld devices. The return on investment in those cases is perhaps self evident, since those workers typically enjoyed no network connection at all before the WLAN was deployed.
But growing numbers of organizations have equipped their professionals with mobile PCs over the last few years and are hooking them up to wireless LANs as well. What's more, they are beginning to see results. Both hard numbers and anecdotal evidence suggest that wirelessly networked notebook users realize increased productivity and enhanced levels of collaboration, while their employers benefit from lower acquisition and deployment costs.
Research has shown that investments in non-networked mobile PCs have been amply justified. According to research by Gartner Consulting, business users with notebook computers who spent 20 percent or more of their time out of the office realize an annual benefit of $34,560 in productivity and efficiency. The same research also shows that the total costs of ownership for notebook users dropped by 29 percent between 1998 and 2001.
Even employees who spend most of their time in the office, however, are not necessarily tethered to their desktop computers. Conference rooms, for example, may have few or no network ports. An employee heading to a meeting with her notebook but without a network connection will have no access to e-mail, instant messaging, or information stored on the corporate intranet.
"Our survey of wireless LAN usage shows that more than 40 percent of workers spend less than half of their work time in their primary work space," says Sarah Kim, an analyst at the Yankee Group. "It is clear that there is a need for corporate wireless networking."
A 2001 Sage Research report found quantifiable time savings resulting from wireless usage in corporations. This study, based on interviews with 20 large North American companies, found employees realized an additional eight hours a week of productivity when using mobile PCs and a corporate wireless LAN. Gartner Consulting found that professional wireless users with notebooks reported 41 percent higher productivity gains and efficiency savings than wired professionals with notebooks.
At Intel, 65 percent of professional knowledge workers use notebook computers and, of these, increasing numbers are getting connected to wireless LANs. "It saves people disconnect and reconnect time as they go from meeting to meeting," says Gregory Bryant, general manager of Intel's IT Productivity Solutions organization. "It also means more connect time with team members so that they can collaborate. If a question arises, you can send an instant message to a team member and get and an immediate response."
At Ford Motor Company, the initial WLAN installation took place on the eleventh and twelfth floors of the world headquarters, which houses the company's top executives. "One executive uses a small wireless laptop to communicate with his secretary during meetings," says Tony Cataldo, manager of Ford's Advanced Network Strategy Telecommunications Services department. "She will keep him apprised of his incoming calls and the status of his next meeting. She can tell him what he needs to know without causing a disruption."
While browsing e-mails during meetings is not always advisable, it can be a productivity enhancer. "There may be an agenda item that you're not stakeholder in, so you can spend five or ten minutes doing e-mail or retrieving information from an internal Website," says Cataldo.
Increased access to the network and the information that it brings is the cornerstone of the productivity boost brought about by the use of wireless LANs, according to Intel's Bryant. "We found in procuring notebooks that it took only half an hour a week of additional computing time to take care of the costs," he says. "Our research has shown that workers use their notebooks from three hours a week to as much as 12 hours a week more than their desktop PCs. In the case of the wireless network, it's intuitve that the productivity gains will outweigh the costs per unit."
At American Airlines, notebooks attached to wireless LANs are being used in a wide variety of venues. One of its initial uses was to make sales data available to representatives in developing presentations for the company's incentive programs. "The sales reps take revenue data and booking data from the reservation system and merge them to generate meaningful information on how accounts are performing ," says Philip Holden, manager of Sales Technology Support at American Airlines.
The company has since extended the wireless LAN deployment to trade shows and to training and development activities. The trade show application allows exhibitors access to product demonstrations without the necessity of stringing wire. "Products are often best demonstrated with access to Websites," says Holden.
American Airlines also utilizes notebook computers with wireless LAN connections to train sales representatives and managers on the latest Web-based sales and analysis techniques. "We found that it was more efficient and less costly to enable wireless networks for training," says Holden. "We went from a dial-up connection to wireless and found that the training was much more streamlined and that user satisfaction was higher."
American Airlines also has several wireless networking projects on the drawing boards. One, already being piloted at airports in Austin, Texas, and San Joe, Calif., enables roving employees to provide flight and reservation information to passengers. Another project would develop passenger self-service capabilities at airport kiosks. Yet a third would extend the corporate network to office locations as yet unconnected.
Training may also be the future focal point for the wireless LAN deployed by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Thus far, Wharton's wireless network allows students and staff to retrieve e-mail messages in the school's public places. Wharton CIO Gerry McCartney says that the school rolled out its wireless capabilities gradually, testing them to make sure they were stable and reliable each step of the way.
On an educational level, McCartney foresees business students using their notebook computers and the wireless LAN connection for activities as diverse as training in supply chain management and practicing their negotiating techniques. "In the negotiating game," he says, "the students move from group to group, and will want to carry some computing power with them. These days, the network connection is the principal value of most computers."
Sometimes, the value of the wireless network proves itself in avoiding the costs associated with cabling. "Wireless LANs make a great deal of sense where the cost of cabling is high," says Gartner Group analyst Ken Delaney. "The costs of installing the wireless LAN doesn't compare to the expense of breaking down walls and tearing up floors, especially in older buildings."
At Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, space considerations were among the key drivers in the decision to deploy a wireless network to cover the intensive care unit, the emergency department, and other locations. "One of the considerations was the physical layouts of the areas," says Roy Johnson, Children's Hospital's director of IS Applications. "If the unit is extremely short of space, putting desktops into that location would have been impractical."
In the case of the intensive care unit, the use of wireless notebooks mounted atop specially designed carts, enables clinicians to move from one patient to the next and to bring patient information with them. "Otherwise, they would have to call up the information on a PC in each room," says Johnson. "This way, the clinician has the information he needs at the bedside and he doesn't have to try to locate a paper chart to get information. Everything, including test results, are up to the minute and at his fingertips."
Johnson says the only problem he has had with wireless deployment is that care providers and departments complain that they, too, want to be hooked up. Their entreaties are not going unanswered. A newly remodeled neonatal intensive care unit will have wireless capabilities built in as likely will a new hospital building that will soon be breaking ground. "We look at benefits to the patients and the providers," says Johnson. "We examine the benefit not only in terms of the bottom line but also in the outcome for the delivery of care."
Today, Intel sees large shared spaces as the area in which wireless provides the biggest benefit. "The wireless LAN enables us to reduce maintenance and support cost for conference rooms, cafes and other places where people come together to collaborate. We don't have to scramble to buy hubs. With a wireless system, we don't need to maintain a wired network in conference or training rooms," says Gregory Bryant. When it comes to deploying computers into cramped spaces, the wireless network represents an enhancement to, and by no means a replacement for, the previously existing wired network. "In the future, the wireless LAN could allow us to avoid wiring cubicle to cubicle," says Intel's Bryant.
Similarly, the wireless network piggybacks on the security precautions already deployed on its wired counterpart. At Intel, the same virtual private network software that protects the wired network is also installed on the wireless setup. "We feel that it provides the appropriate level of security," says Bryant. "There's not a lot of additional training required because the technicians are already used to it. That fact means that we can keep the total costs of ownership under control. We don't have to spend a ton of money to keep the wireless network in shape."