Going Global

— June 08, 2007

From accelerating airport operations in Helsinki to providing context-aware local service marketing in Singapore, mobility is breeding innovation abroad.

The tag teams on the ground at Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport can't get lost between lunch breaks anymore. Jari Viitanen sees to that. Three years ago he envisioned the rollout of a real-time RFID tagging system that would track ground personnel loading and unloading aircraft, transferring baggage, completing gate check-ins and swinging metal stairways up to passenger doors.

Within a year and a half, the system was operational. Today, roughly 500 ground-based Finnair airline workers carry Nokia 5140i smartphones equipped with RFID tag readers. They use their phones and RFID badge tags to check in for work, receive assignments, track passengers and kilos of cargo, register task completions at every gate and get real-time information about changes in aircraft arrivals and departures. "We know exactly where [every] worker is," said Viitanen, a VP of business development for Northport, the ground-handling subsidiary for Finnair. "Before, aircraft captains would be calling managers on the ground to say, 'Where's your staff?' because sometimes they weren't meeting the aircraft on the ground." Now, he continues, "we know who is using the phone at every moment [and where teams are located]. It's much faster to send and receive information from the ground staff to the task allocators (managers) so they know where to send ground staff next."

The Finnair handset solution combines real-time RFID tracking with a 56Kbps GPRS data connection from the Nokia smartphone. Linked to an IBM WebSphere server and the airport work management system, the Finnair mobile RFID task and personnel tracking application is the first of its kind in the world.

It's a complex application that took nearly three years of work to implement and refine, and Viitanen suggests it could become a model for other mobile airport worker RFID tracking systems worldwide. Now being expanded to all Finnair ground operations in Helsinki, the solution is part of a new business biosphere, literally a series of interlocking mobile ecosystems that seem to change the entire climate of business communications, its users and markets, and its benchmarks for productivity, efficiency and marketing effectiveness. Moreover, these solutions are enabling global businesses to expand while reducing costs. Many are availing themselves of converging CDMA/GSM world phone technologies. (An example: Verizon Wireless and RIM's co-launch of the BlackBerry 8830 World Edition Smartphone, a global CDMA/GSM BlackBerry providing business travelers with connectivity in more than 60 countries.) Others are investing in integrated global pricing plans (i.e., AT&T's GlobalView), audio/video podcasting, managed IP networking with mobility, extensive wireless VoIP, RFID, cellular broadband (e.g., 3G) and WiFi, among many other solutions.

The Finnair application is a leader in the mobile RFID space. "The airport is a very hectic environment, and it's very important to know where your people are," affirms Kimmo Kaskikallio, an IBM Finland wireless IT architect who collaborated with Viitanen on the solution. "So the basic idea is to report the tasks and activities tied to [workers serving] a certain location." To do this, workers obtain an RFID phone when they check into work. They swipe their employee badges, which register the phone to them individually, enabling them to receive specific airport assignments. At Finnair gates and other key worker locations, they bring the phone within 1 to 2 centimeters of an embedded RFID tag to indicate a task is complete. The phone system also enables them to track passengers and cargo loads, change in-flight information and integrate directly with the existing work allocation system, uploading transaction events in real time.

"Before, workers used huge numbers of computers around the airport [to get information about flights and their assigned tasks]," said Kaskikallio. They would also call into a service center and enter a pin number to obtain details about the next work assignment and location. But it took too much time, and critical worker location data in real time were frequently lost. "Now the reporting is so easy," says Kaskikallio, "it's the first thing the workers do."

Viitanen adds that the RFID real-time application has altered worker habits and attitudes. "The biggest problem we had at first was that the staff didn't like that we knew exactly where they were at [any] time, but now they seem pleased because they have all the information they need to do their next tasks," he said.

Though hard productivity data from the RFID implementation are not yet available, Finnair is rapidly expanding the application to other ground personnel. Worldwide, businesses are launching mobile applications every bit as intricate as the Finnair tracking system. For example:

In Singapore, the Wireless Development Center, a newly opened research and development facility wholly owned by Sybase iAnywhere and partially sponsored by Singapore's Economic Development Board, is testing context-aware mobile technology based on Singapore's ubiquitous WiFi locator network, which is available free to the public. The technology, known as Answers Anywhere, employs middleware and WiFi antenna locators throughout the island nation to help discern "what the user is doing, where the user is and what state the application and handset are in to provide the most useful content to the user," explains Babak Hodjat, a senior director of Sybase iAnywhere in Singapore.

"This is the next user interface that fills in the blanks of what you left out [while interacting with information on a wireless phone]," said Hodjat. For example, a user who has hopped onto WiFi to surf for hotel information may get a map automatically displayed to his mobile screen showing current location, then a series of highlighted businesses near that location, along with different links to Yellow Pages categories or weather information.

Another Wireless Development Center application: Interactive alerts overlaid on an SMS network provided by Mobile 365, an SMS gateway company now owned by Sybase. The interactive alerts provide a way for banks and other institutions to provide two-way financial updates and alerts to customers, allowing them instantly to respond or take action using SMS.

In China and the United States, Intel Corporation, among dozens of other firms, is making extensive use of audio and video podcasting to disseminate information on Intel products, services and applications development. Part of a global media push that makes use of wireless and Web-based press conferencing, RSS feeds and video/audio on the Web, the podcasts are marketed heavily both to internal Intel sales and technical people worldwide, as well as to the general public.

"Last year we did over 100 podcasts. This year we'll probably do twice that number, and for each podcast we do, we like to get tens of thousands of downloads in a single month," said Ken Kaplan, Intel's broadcast and new media manager for the Global Communications Group. Intel uses the services of PodTech, which produces podcasting for dozens of entrepreneurial clients and countries. "We're showing our counterparts overseas how to use [podcasts], and then they will translate or use them," Kaplan said.

Podcasting, Weblogs, wikis and other forms of collaborative and mobile "social text" behind corporate firewalls are fast becoming standard communications tools, says Ross Mayfield, the CEO of Socialtext, a company specializing in the build-out of secure Weblogs and enterprise wikis and mikis (mobile wikis for untethered workers). "Our core business is building wikipedias on an intranet where a [comparatively] small group of people have access to publish [their ideas]," he explains. Intranet-based wikis and even Socialtext's new mikis are increasing in popularity because they provide an open forum for groupthink rather than the point-to-point communication most favored in corporate email.

In effect, mobile wikis are a response to the limitations of the BlackBerry culture, says Mayfield, referring to "the little tiny short messages pushed at you." Instead, a mobile wiki is "truly accessible and editable -- and anytime you go to a social text wiki with a mobile Web browser, it will automatically detect that you're using a mobile version and serve up a version optimized for a mobile interface. It truly does change the communication and collaboration patterns of the organization."

Wireless Voice over IP (VoIP) is growing by leaps and bounds, exceeding 30 percent growth rates annually (as compared to total VoIP minutes) in some markets. According to Anand Parikh, a VP of business development at Massachusetts-based Sonus Networks, a company building VoIP media and signaling gateways, IP backbone is penetrating deeper into both wireline and wireless networks, causing rapid replacement of circuit-switched leased lines for 2G and 3G. "Up until December 2006 we had 33 billion minutes per month of VoIP running on Sonus networks, out of which 10 billion minutes per month were coming from wireless networks," said Parikh, whose company is building IP backbone infrastructure for AT&T, Verizon, Deutsch Telekom, Level 3, Qwest, KDDI and NTT of Japan, and Cable & Wireless, among many other carriers. "We've seen [wireless VoIP] percentages grow pretty much to 30 percent of the total VoIP as of last year," he continues. "With our own customers, we've seen wireless minutes from 2005 to 2006 grow more than 100 percent in terms of switching from
circuit-switched voice to VoIP."

Wireless carriers are forging alliances to promote global business worldwide. The new AT&T's GlobalView service offers business clients the ability to roam worldwide on partner GSM/GPRS networks while obtaining local pricing. For example, customers can bring a GSM handset to Europe from America and hop onto networks in Germany, Ireland, the UK, Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Poland, Romania and other countries using minutes on any of these networks to retire their commitment to AT&T. The service offers consolidated account management and reporting.

Europe's Orange Business Services offers Business Everywhere, a mobility solution for remote workers that combines a toolkit of options - anything from dial-up services to broadband UMTS along with access to corporate VPNs and intranets. Services are now available in 140 countries worldwide. Orange now has services such as DSL, WiFi and Ethernet access availability in 21 Chinese cities. Business customers include large multinationals such as Mondi Packaging AG of Austria, one of the largest producers of paper and packaging worldwide. Business Everywhere now provides mobility solutions for 750 Mondi users who have access to the company's IP infrastructure and critical enterprise applications at the click of a mouse.

Services such as these that integrate mobility with voice and data are prompting huge changes in the global business community. For example, mobile data adoption rates among European global-size firms (i.e., firms with more than 20,000 employees) now exceed one quarter of all employees, according to recent surveys by Forrester Research. Comparable-size North American companies lag somewhat behind, with 17 percent adoption rates, but overall, mobile data uptake among large (1,000 to 4,999 employees) and very large (5,000 to 19,999) European and North American enterprises have now pulled even roughly at 22 percent.

"A year ago we'd say the Europeans were ahead, and North American companies weren't as serious, but that is really changing," said Brownlee Thomas, the principal analyst for global wireless at Forrester Research. According to unpublished data compiled as late as 2007, Thomas continues, 30 percent of employees in large North American companies (greater than 1,000 employees) are reporting use of public cellular data, including 3G, EV-DO, GPRS and EDGE. The European companies using UMTS are reporting that 26 percent of employees are already using mobility solutions. Moreover, the telecom budgets for mobile voice and data are growing. In Forrester Research's 2007 survey, all large, very large and global North American companies reported that 28 percent to 30 percent of their telecom budgets would be devoted to mobile voice and data services. Percentages are edging up to fully one-third of global telecom budgets.

The implication of these figures is startling. They suggest that wireless communications will soon approach "fail safe" levels of ubiquity. Soaring WiFi attachment rates, cellular subscribership and 3G, wireless VoIP, video and audio podcasting, BlackBerry/Verizon world phones, Windows Mobile 6.0, over-the-air provisioning and wireless device management on a global scale: these trends suggest that mobile ecosystems are becoming intrinsic to the communications biosphere. Moreover, converging voice and data along with integrated Web 2.0 and wireless, RFID and logistics, enterprise wikis and lightweight Web-native collaborations are producing applications and psychological changes in the mobile workforce that are not even chartered as yet.

"The changes are fantastic," said Thomas. "Until three years ago corporate CIOS were resisting wireless data, trying to keep mobility out because of management problems. Now everyone is doing productivity benefit studies." At corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, she continues, "they have some 20,000 mobile devices, and for multinationals, mobility adoption is up to around 30 percent. It's huge," Thomas says, adding that the numbers will just keep going up.

Arielle Emmett is a lecturer at Temple University and was the editor of Wireless Data for the Enterprise.

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