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iPhone 5 networking features a blessing and a curse for IT

The iPhone 5's LTE and 5 GHz wireless support will boost employee productivity, but you'll have to keep an extra-close eye on cellular data usage.

New iPhone 5 networking features will make business users more productive, but could also leave unprepared IT departments with a case of sticker shock.

The iPhone 5 is the first Apple phone that's compatible with next-generation long-term evolution (LTE) cellular networks, and it also supports the 5 GHz wireless band. These advancements mean users will have faster, more consistent connections to corporate systems.

"That will have a huge effect on employees interacting with data and enabling a mobile workforce,” said Aaron Freimark, chief technology officer of Tekserve, an Apple reseller and services provider based in New York City.

IT departments that pay for employees' data usage will have to keep an eye on the associated costs, however, because LTE-enabled devices can consume data much faster than those on 3G networks.

“Enterprises that do not manage their data bills with the carriers are going to be in a shock,” said Brian Katz, director of mobile engineering for Sanofi, a pharmaceuticals manufacturer based in Bridgewater, N.J.

Inside iPhone 5 networking

LTE is the latest method for transmitting data from cellular towers to smartphones and tablets. LTE networks in the U.S. can achieve transfer rates of about 20 megabits per second, faster than the typical speeds of home broadband connections.

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The inclusion of the 5 GHz wireless radio band means employees with the iPhone 5 will be able to get off the crowded 2.4 GHz spectrum. Most wireless products operate on the 2.4 GHz spectrum, which produces lots of radio interference and can cause signals to drop.

“Most everyone has 5 GHz infrastructure in place already,” Freimark said. “Many enterprise-level wireless radios have dual radio channels. This will allow IT, over the adoption of the iPhone 5, to transition off of the crowded 2.4 GHz channel.”

Organizations that struggle with over-burdened networks because of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend will be able to reap the benefits of additional wireless capacity from the 5 GHz spectrum without having to do anything, Freimark said. That will give organizations additional time in the short term to plan necessary network upgrades for the data-hogging mobile era. 

The problem with the new iPhone 5 networking features is they may increase users' expectations about online connectivity. Just because mobile phones have LTE connectivity and better wireless technology, it doesn’t guarantee a constant connection.

IT will need to plan and enable offline work capabilities for when there isn’t a reliable cellular or Wi-Fi signal, said Benjamin Robbins, a principal at Palador Inc., an enterprise mobility consulting firm based in Seattle.

Most everyone has 5GHz infrastructure in place already.

Aaron Freimark, Tekserve

The price of iPhone 5 networking

Organizations that pay for users' data plans should use the iPhone 5 release to re-evaluate their existing cellular carrier contracts, Katz said. Depending on the carrier, organizations can sometimes negotiate to buy unlimited data plans, but a better approach could be to buy a pool, which essentially divides a set amount of data among a certain amount of employees.

“If you’ve got two employees with 10 GBs of monthly data, and one employee uses 2 GBs and the other uses 7 GBs, that one employee blew past their allotted monthly data, but it doesn’t matter because it’s pooled,” Katz said.

He suggested these other tools and strategies for mitigating the cost of exceeding data caps:

  • Using apps that alert users when they are about to go over their allotted amount of data;
  • Using apps that can minimize the data used for transferring photos and other data hogs; and
  • Good old fashioned training and education.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for employees [to] blow [through] a data cap once,” Freimark said. “No one wants that to happen, but it’s kind of like international roaming where you get that $1,000 bill. Your employee makes that mistake, and then you have to let them know that’s not okay.” 

Despite these iPhone 5 networking improvements, there were some letdowns in this week's announcement. Bob Egan, an enterprise mobility consultant with the Nantucket, Mass.-based Seraphim Group, pointed to the absence of near field communication (NFC) support and the lack of news about Bluetooth 4.0. Organizations could use those technologies for everything from building security access to mobile printing, Egan said. 

“It’s not just about mobile payments,” he added.

iPhone 5 features: Beyond networking

Another iPhone 5 improvement that could bear fruit in the business world is the screen size, which Apple increased from 3.5” to 4” on the diagonal. Yes, developers will have to rejigger applications to account for the extra screen real estate, but that extra space will make a huge difference to employees.

“The struggle with mobilizing a workforce is being able to have a good user experience, whether that’s a field service employee entering a report, or a financial account planner needing the latest information to fill out a CRM report,” Egan said. "These are all still struggles on a 3.5” screen. … Applications like GoTo Meeting will have a better experience over these phones."

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