CTIA show focuses on ROI

Gee-whiz wireless technology is taking a back seat to projects that deliver bottom-line results quickly at this year's Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) Wireless IT and Internet 2002 Conference.

In a city that sells escapist fantasy, Tom Wheeler, president and CEO of the CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, kicked off the conference yesterday with a session focused on wireless projects that show a quick and demonstrable ROI. Gone was the emphasis on overhyped technologies such as mobile commerce that have characterized past CTIA conferences.

Adel Al-Saleh, general manager of the IBM Global Wireless e-business unit, said in his keynote speech that technology companies must demonstrate a clear return on investment to customers planning to deploy wireless systems. To help them make these decisions, Al-Saleh said, IBM Corp. has developed a tool it calls the Wireless ROI Predictor, which helps calculate how quickly a customer can get back an initial project investment.

Bob Eardley, senior director of information technology transformation solutions at Air Canada in Montreal, said he used the Wireless ROI Predictor before starting a project called e-Toolbox, which is designed to provide airline mechanics with wireless access to aircraft maintenance manuals and diagrams. The system runs on legacy systems housed on IBM 390 mainframes.

After a test this spring at the Montreal Doral International Airport, Eardley said, Air Canada plans to deploy the e-Toolbox systemwide during the next 18 months at the large airports it serves internationally.

He said e-Toolbox provides mechanics with quick access from the gate or tarmac to the information they need to make an aircraft repair, which in turn results in fewer cancellations, improved material management, better maintenance planning and an increase in productivity. Eardley estimates that the system will "return benefits in the millions of dollars a year."

IBM, which has a long-term strategic relationship with Air Canada, developed a Web-based viewer that allows line mechanics to quickly access the legacy data, Eardley said. That saved the carrier from having to rewrite old code -- a task he viewed as daunting.

The mechanics access the data over industry-standard 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, wireless connections from rugged PCs housed in the cabs of their vehicles. All data sent over the LAN is encrypted, Eardley said, adding that Air Canada and IBM are working on another project to add digital signatures to the job orders mechanics complete.

IBM and Air Canada now plan to sell e-Toolbox to other air carriers, a move Eardley believes has a good chance of success since few carriers have mastered the problem of remotely accessing legacy data.

Although e-Toolbox required complex integration with back-end systems, Citigroup Inc. in New York found that tapping into the simplest form of wireless data -- Short Messaging Service (SMS) messages of 160 characters or less -- can provide a quick ROI. Alan Young, vice president of emerging technology at Citigroup's corporate technology office, said customers in Poland were overwhelming the company's call centers twice a month to check on whether their paychecks had been deposited.

Since Citigroup couldn't afford to staff the call centers on a daily basis to handle the spike in calls, Young said the company worked with Oracle Corp. to develop an SMS alert feature that delivers customer balances every day -- an approach made easier by heavy penetration of mobile wireless in Poland and the fact that all carriers in that country adhere to the Global System for Mobile Communications standard.

Once Citigroup successfully launched the SMS bank balance service in Poland, it rolled the service out in India, another country where balance inquiries threatened to overwhelm call centers. The bottom line, according to Young: Citigroup receives 1.5 million calls a day from customers worldwide.

"Answering each of those calls costs dollars," Young said, whereas the price of sending an SMS message is measured in cents.

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