A mobility initiative at Japan's second-largest utility improved efficiency and is saving $4 million annually.
The notion of an all-wireless office is perhaps nirvana for many enterprises, but stigma has always been associated with the use of WLANs to carry a company's critical communications. Can quality and security rival that of traditional private branch exchange and data systems?
Osaka Gas Co. Ltd. in Japan, however, has debunked the notion that enterprise WLANs aren't robust enough to support the most data-intensive corporate applications. In mid-2005, Japan's second-largest utility company embarked on the world's largest deployment of a wireless office, which it successfully completed in early 2006 with 6,000 wireless IP phones across 49 offices.
"This deployment was closely watched by companies all over the world," noted Kamal Anan, VP of marketing and corporate strategy with Meru Networks, Osaka Gas' WLAN vendor. "Today, every major corporation is looking at this and thinking of major pilot programs and deployments. The benefits and capabilities that Osaka has developed are very important."
Osaka Gas imports natural gas in the form of liquefied natural gas and distributes it to some 6.6 million customers, or about 25 percent of the total number of customers in Japan. Its service area covers 69 cities and 41 towns. Field workers already used mobile technology to more efficiently conduct tasks such as remote meter reading and pipeline monitoring, but Osaka Gas IT executives wanted to gain similar efficiencies in the office environment. The company's Information and Communication Systems department launched a company-wide "Change Out Work Style" initiative in 2005 with the goal of creating the ultimate address-free office work environment where employees could not only work on their laptops anywhere on campus but also take phone calls.
"We thought mobilizing technology to our white-collar workers would dramatically improve efficiency," said Hikaru Hirayama, general manager of the company's Information and Communication Systems department. "We considered a fixed IP phone, but we estimated that the cost and amount of the deployment wouldn't justify the investment. By thinking of using a wireless IP phone, we could justify the cost and make the improvement to efficiency."
Osaka Gas then sought to deploy a pervasive WLAN infrastructure capable of supporting multiple data and voice applications. The system needed to support a maximum of 10 simultaneous calls to each WiFi access point, meaning that the 11th call would get a busy signal.
The company selected California-based Meru Networks to provide a complete system that included 800 AP200 access points, 72 MC1000 controllers and 6,000 dual-mode handsets capable of supporting bothWiFi connectivity and 3G cellular service from operator NTT DoCoMo.
Meru beat out vendors such as Cisco, NEC/Airespace and Aruba based on two main factors, said Hirayama. First, Meru's system was able to support fast call handover enabled by Meru's voice service module, which doesn't require any dependence on proprietary extensions to the client or proprietary signaling from the IP PBX. Second, Meru could control over-the-air upstream traffic without any client-side software. That means the system can restrict the maximum number of simultaneous calls at one access point to control bandwidth and, hence, call quality.
The greatest technology obstacle in setting up the system was providing efficient WLAN configurations in nearly 50 offices throughout Japan. "Voice quality was one of the differentiators for Osaka Gas," said Anan. "Fundamentally, the goal is to give users an experience and quality similar to wired networks and provide wireless infrastructure that allows for voice and data that's the same experience as wired. Voice quality has to be better than cellular and as good as wired."
Osaka Gas invested a total of $8 million in the project, but it was able to replace private branch exchanges with session initiation protocol (SIP) servers in its 47 branch offices and avoid the costs associated with wiring offices. To reduce cellular network charges, Osaka Gas has relied on a least-cost routing (LCR) function built into its SIP servers; with LCR , a cellular phone number is converted to an extension number for use within a wireless LAN area. Also, a cell phone can be considered a fixed-line phone for calling a cell phone outside its extension area, further lowering costs. "We are saving $4 million a year, so that means in two years we'll get a return on our investment," said Hirayama.
Osaka Gas estimates a 50 percent savings in worker efficiency has been achieved. Employees can answer extension calls anytime, as if they were at their own desks, even when they are in other offices. Similarly, business-critical documents stored on the central server are now accessible from anywhere.
As in many companies, some Osaka Gas employees were at first uncomfortable with changes in infrastructure that affected their everyday activities. In addition to WiFi configuration problems, some employees were reluctant to give up their wired phones.
"It was tedious for older people," said Hirayama. "Employees had to remember an extension number to transfer a call over wireless, rather than the simpler method of using a transfer button to transfer calls in a wired phone system."
These days, Hirayama hears no complaints about the system. Workers now feel empowered because they can check email inside and outside the company or call directly into a conference room.
Future plans for the system involve extending the VoIP phones to handle more data services, such as corporate intranet and scheduling systems. The idea is to eliminate the necessity for carrying laptops to customer sites or branch offices. Osaka Gas also desires to implement a solution that can locate individual employees within its 47 different branch offices.
"Presence and availability capabilities are quite useful for a lot of situations, especially when workers need to know when executives are available for impromptu meetings," said Hirayama. //
Lynnette Luna has more than 10 years of experience covering the wireless telecom industry.