Wireless carriers eye major enterprise image makeover

As wireless network operators spend billions of dollars on their makeover from phone companies to advanced-services platform providers, the biggest barrier that they will face is convincing business customers that they understand IT.

But if they can win that battle, the carriers next step -- the move to wirelessly enable a mobile workforce -- will not be a hard sell even in a down economy, according to experts. Savvy customers already understand that they are paying a premium price for maintaining their mobile workforce, whether it operates wirelessly or not.

Five of the six largest wireless carriers are in the midst of redoing their networks to accommodate both advanced voice and data services. Cingular Wireless LLC announced this week that it will lay out a new GSM network for voice and data. Sprint Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. announced last spring the deployment of next-generation networks by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, newly spun off AT&T Wireless Group Inc. established a multimedia division to create new business opportunities.

"As wireless data emerges it is important to focus on the enterprise," said Don Boerma, vice president of the multimedia division at AT&T Wireless.

In the short term, Nextel Communications Inc. will soon announce a compression technology to run on its current network to increase wireless data performance from a sluggish 19.2Kbps to 56Kbps.

And over the long term, Nextel has two separate teams focusing on devices and the other on the wireless data network, according to Ben Ho, director of strategic and partner marketing for Nextel's wireless data group.

In many industries, such as construction, transportation, real estate, and field force management, the mobile worker is the heart of the company. So whether a company operates wirelessly or not, mobility is all ready an added expense, according to Neil Ward-Dutton, director of research for e-infrastructure at Ovum Ltd., a London-based telecom and wireless research company.

"If they can't connect easily to the people out in the field they are paying for it in higher costs," Ward-Dutton said.

While it may be premature to start counting up the purchase orders, companies such as AT&T Wireless attest to the fact that at least the interest level is high for mobile solutions to reduce costs.

"The CIOs are opening their arms to talk to us. They want to take their wired solutions to a wireless mobile environment," Boerma said.

But Jane Zweig, CEO at the Shosteck Group, in Wheaton, Md., says that while the network operators have convinced themselves that they are essential to the enterprise, the enterprise is not equally convinced.

"There is a lot of confusion in this enterprise space. The wireless carriers want to offer mission critical applications over a wireless network but the question is will the enterprise trust mission critical to wireless," Zweig said.

Boerma at AT&T Wireless readily admits carriers need to change to deal with the enterprise from a different perspective. "We used to deal with the vice president of telecom, now we deal with the CIO."

But the problem goes beyond talking to the right person. While independent software vendors understand that a CIO wants to extend customer relationship management, sales force automation and key business processes to involve mobile workers in real time, carriers think of their customers as someone who checks stocks, travel and flight information, according to Ward-Dutton"To the software provider, he is dealing with a corporate entity, but from the operators point of view the business customer is just an individual consumer with more money," Ward-Dutton said.

While carriers may understand how to deliver data over a wireless network, for example, Ward-Dutton questions whether they have a deep enough understanding of an application when the user is not connected to the network. Mobile workers must continue to operate on a mission critical application in disconnected mode as well.

"It's not just the network, but the ability to have data cached when disconnected from the network," Ward-Dutton said.

The operators are also struggling with pricing, too. The carriers have seen their voice revenues turn to a commodity and so they are all looking at data as a lucrative revenue stream.

"Carriers need to focus on, and have, different skill sets. Carriers are focused on minutes but for data you need to look at KB and MB. It's a different mindset and mentality and we are evolving our business to capitalize on that," Boerma said.

If further proof is needed of the carriers determination to head off in a new direction, Sprint last month wrapped up a developer conference with such non-telecomm sessions as JAVA on Mobile Devices, Monetizing Applications, and Wireless Web Enterprise Application Development.

"Think of us as a platform. I give you an SDK and a platform, and you use our speech recognition platform, voice-to-text and text-to-speech. It's all part of a bigger value proposition," said Jason Guesman, director of business marketing at Sprint.

Sprint will shortly announce an extension of its Star Talk consumer service for its corporate customers that will put a company's global directory in a secure vault on the carriers network, giving employees voice access to any other employee by speaking the name. Currently, Star Talk allows users to store up to 500 names on the network, which is accessible by cell phone.

Voice access to e-mail for reading and response are also all on the way, Guesman said.

Advanced voice services such as Sprint's Star Talk, which give users access to corporate data over a cell phone, are here now, while access to data over data devices such as a Palm, Pocket PC, or RIM Blackberry device are on the way. But Verizon's vision appears even broader. It sees its future as a global services company, according to the chief architect of its recently created Strategic Systems Delivery Division.

"Myself and my team see a dramatic shift in how we approach the business customer. We have a tremendous data network, a wireless network, and we have huge data centers to house them. We can extend our service footprint, for example, that would allow us to do the entire integration for a institution," said Suman Sengupta, chief architect.

"We can automate the business processes in a manner where they are accessible, untethered [wireless]," he added.

Despite claims by Sengupta and other carriers that they can do it all, many analysts believe that the market won't take off until the carriers, software vendors, and device manufacturers partner up to offer a solution rather than offering a technology.

And some, such as Ward-Dutton, believe CTOs would rather deal with a system integrator. Even more inviting for CTOs is the possibility that the wireless carriers will open up their network to the enterprise.

Early this month Cingular, in partnership with a company called Seven, announced the capability that will allow companies inside the carrier network. IT managers would be able to look at their mobile work force in an entirely new way. If a worker is seen to be on the phone, an e-mail or page alert might be sent instead of a placing a call. Location-based capability will allow companies to more efficiently deploy workers and make deliveries as well.

Operators might also open up the billing system so that companies can use the carriers' sophisticated billing capabilities to have customers pay for applications. Billing is something Boerma at AT&T Wireless specifically points to as one of his company's area of expertise with 17 million subscribers.

Ward-Dutton sees the possibility that the carriers will need to team up with brands well-known to the enterprise in co-branding efforts. Perhaps with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Ward-Dutton says someday we may see something like "Office Online brought to you buy Microsoft and fill in the name of your favorite wireless carrier."

"Both voice and data are going to be huge growth areas. It's a matter of timing," Boerma adds.

To which analyst Zweig responds by answering her own question: Will the enterprise trust mission-critical to wireless? "Look at voice today. Need I say more?"

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