Mobile Insights

Cost-effective mobile connectivity

Companies are facing mounting mobile connectivity costs as more and more employees require mobile devices for improved communications, productivity and anytime/anywhere access. In this series, Craig Mathias helps you make sense of the mobile connectivity options available and provides real world examples to help you reduce costs before they get out of control.

 In this series:

  Introduction
   Mobile mission, policy and options
  Real world solutions to cost reduction

 

Introduction  

First of all, I feel compelled to admit right up front here that I'm a very frugal business owner. Some might even call me cheap. But as the old dictum goes, it's not how much you make -- rather, it's how much you keep. And the best way to keep more is to spend less, or at least to make every dollar work as hard and as efficiently as possible. Of course, spending money is never going to be 100% efficient, and just the analysis work involved in trying to make it so is ultimately going to be a major drag on productivity and the bottom line. But there are steps we can take -- no matter what our business model or industry -- that can help to optimize spending and expenses without involving a whole lot of work.

This is true with varying levels of effort in essentially every area of spending, but (you expected otherwise?) I want to focus on wireless and mobile in this series. IT spending is always a target for senior management; I can't tell you the number of meetings I've sat through where the VP of finance wonders aloud why the "computer people" always seem to need more money. One CIO I met with recently relayed an even more stark reality -- he was simply told that his budget for the upcoming fiscal year would decline 10%, but that he would be expected to deliver the same set of results (and even a little more) regardless.

Maybe this isn't all bad, however. After all, as managers we have the job of allocating resources to where they will generate the best return on investment. Having that as a goal is a big part of what business is all about. But as mobility has become the preferred approach for IT in recent years, with more staff traveling or otherwise expected to be productive while away from the office (if they even have an office!), many organizations have had to come face to face with reality: Mobile computers cost more than desktops, and wireless networking and communications services (but not client devices) remain a significant expense, despite improvements in both throughput and availability.

Wireless voice and data services today feature steady improvements in coverage, fewer dropped calls and higher data rates. We have more wireless options, including 802.11n-based Wi-Fi, HSPA and EVDO Rev A, and, soon, WiMAX. Competition should work to drive prices lower. But carriers have been reluctant to compete on price, and the price of wireless services has, if anything, stabilized over the past few years.

The reason for this is that the wireless industry is still in high-investment mode, with 3G buildouts still underway (T-Mobile USA is really just getting started with its 3G deployments). The cost-cutting measures at some carriers are not serving to lower prices -- nor were they designed to. Indeed, with 4G systems now on the drawing board, it's very unlikely that we'll see big declines in wireless service prices over the next few years. We'll be offered higher throughput -- without, in most cases, real guarantees of performance -- but no reduction in service pricing.

So the task before us is to make the best use of the wireless products and services available today, to plan for the integration of higher throughput but no cheaper wide-area wireless services in the near future, and to make mobile workers productive without breaking the bank.

In the next section, we'll explore some of the key options for maximizing the return on investment in mobile and wireless products and services, and we'll conclude this series with a few recommendations that will help you get the most out of your mobile IT plan.

 

Mobile mission, policy and options  

It goes without saying that you want to save money on your mobile products and services, or at least get the most out of the dollars you may spend on the planned products and services in your mobile strategy. There are a lot of variables here, but the place to start is with mission, policy and options. As with most elements of IT, planning around these items must be complete before purchasing begins -- start with strategy, not technology. Let's look at each of these in turn:

  • Mission -- Too many organizations, in my experience, go straight to the purchasing of equipment without asking what's really needed for each class of user. Part of this is the result of the "PC culture" that's evolved over the past 25 years. After all, you gotta give everyone a computer, right? Well, maybe, but first we need to define what each class of user (sales, service, mobile professionals, product developers, etc.) needs in a PC and network connectivity. Many users have very simple requirements (typically, Microsoft Office or equivalent, a browser and a wireless LAN), and this set of capabilities can run on a fairly compact and inexpensive notebook. Some people will be able to live with a mobile Internet device (MID) running Linux in place of a Windows-based PC or Mac; in fact, I use a MID almost exclusively when I travel today. And it's a very, very inexpensive device, with a bonus of being very, very light in weight.

    Cell phones and handsets must be subjected to a similar process. Sure, the latest and greatest mobile device is always what everyone wants, but if one's mission involves only plain old text email, then a less expensive device can serve perfectly well. One key to saving money is not to overbuy -- mobile devices have a fairly short useful life (perhaps two to three years at best), and less expensive devices often have better ROI. Yes, I know the iPhone is fun to use, but do you really need it, or is a less-expensive handset the way to go?

  • Policy -- ROI also depends to a great degree on how the mobile device -- and related mobile and wireless communications services -- are used. And this is the domain of policy, which takes several forms. First, you should have an acceptable use policy that defines what the user can do with the device. I would suggest that personal, nonbusiness activities be prohibited, with a few exceptions for emergencies. Less use means less-costly service plans. You also need a security policy that defines which data is confidential, who should have access to it, and what to do if sensitive information is compromised. I've always suggested that the enterprise own all mobile devices used in the business so that these policies can be enforced, and that regular consciousness-raising be used to keep runaway expense -- or runaway information -- from creating an even great cost headache.

 

  • Options -- Finally, you can help control costs by limiting the options users have for equipment and services. Again, we don't want to compromise the mission, but having a relatively small number of mobile devices to choose from, and specifying the wireless communications service plans that everyone must use allows you to purchase the volume necessary to negotiate optimal deals with equipment suppliers and carriers. Purchasing, it goes without saying, should be centralized to the greatest degree possible. Such a strategy of commonality can also be beneficial in holding down support costs, which can be greater than the capital expense involved in purchasing PCs and handhelds to begin with. Training and help desk activities are labor-intensive, and keeping personnel costs under control is always key to cost-effective anything.


Sure, there will be exceptions every now and then; one-size-fits-all doesn't exist -- but one-size-fits-most certainly does.

The bottom line: Never compromise the mission, but look for the most cost-effective way to accomplish it. Explicit policies and limited options also send funds directly to the bottom line. In the next section we'll look at a few additional ideas that I've found work really well in getting the best ROI from your mobile computing and communications investment.

 

Making mobile connectivity cost-effective  

So let's see if we can put the mission/policy/options strategy I outlined in the last section to work. Here are a few concrete suggestions for making mobile connectivity as cost effective as possible in your organization:

  • First, before you buy anything, start with a list of requirements and objectives for your mobile computing initiative, and make this list as concrete as possible. Assume nothing about computers, networks or carriers. Plan out the flow of information elements -- which data needs to be mobilized, who should have access to it and when, and how the solution will function in the field. Focus on the application(s), not the implementation.

 

  • Then, IT should design a prototype solution and put it through a dry run to make sure it will do what the requirements state. Very important at this point is to do only a very limited deployment to be sure the hardware, software and services do what IT thinks they should. It's a bad idea to buy production quantities of anything until the prototype has been carefully field tested.

 

  • Deployment should involve the least number of options required to make the solution work. If you can stick with one particular notebook, handset or wireless service provider, so much the better. The best deal, especially for multinationals, will usually require some adaptation here -- using a local wireless carrier, for example, as might be expected. But centralize purchasing to get the most out of volume agreements wherever that's feasible.

 

  • Wireless service costs can be very high indeed when international roaming is used. I suggest you avoid that (admittedly convenient) vehicle whenever possible. You can (if you have an unlocked phone) buy a SIM card locally for a particular country, or you can rent or buy a phone locally, looking, of course, for the best service plan based on your calling requirements. I frequently use Skype when traveling overseas; that's a very cost-effective solution but is lacking a bit in convenience if you're one of those who needs to be glued to the phone (I'm not).

 

  • Sexy handsets are great conversation starters but can be hard on the bottom line. If you need a high-end handset because the application requirements so dictate, so be it. But many members of a field staff can get buy with a fairly basic phone or low-end PDA-class model (what many call smartphones). Again, I always suggest that the enterprise own any devices or any form used to access corporate resources; you can manage or secure what you don't own. But let your local security policy be your guide. It might seem like a cost savings to let staff members use their phones or PCs to access your network -- and, until something goes wrong, it can be. No matter what, make sure your security and acceptable-use policies are up to date.

 

  • Avoid buying PCs with built-in wireless WAN adapters. Yes, it's more convenient, but you may end up locked into a deal with a carrier that's less than cost-effective. Use external adapters -- USB models are cheap to free and almost as convenient as built-ins -- and share these wherever feasible. I also like using handsets with USB ports or Bluetooth adapters via tethered access from a notebook. That way only the handset and a PC are required, and the additional monthly charge for tethering is usually quite small. Note, however, that not all carriers support tethering on all of their models, and finding a cost-effective combination that works can be trying. Again, that's why the prototype period is so important before you go to production.

 

  • And always review monthly billings and management reports carefully. Misuse of resources is pretty easy to track and fix, and doing so can send a big chunk of cash right to the bottom line.


I started this series noting that I don't think wireless service prices are likely to fall much, at least for a while. But careful specification of your mobile strategy, defining the minimal toolset, and monitoring the results can yield the benefits of mobility without a level of spending that will have the CFO at your door.

About the author:
Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.


This was first published in September 2008

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