Industries Technology

Building their apps

Will wireless be the next workhorse for small and midsize businesses?

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Print this page by Garry Kranz

Charlottesville entrepreneur Jeff Gunther offers a glimpse into how wireless technologies could change the way small businesses operate. Gunther, who runs three startup companies, took the radical step last year of letting his 22 employees set their own work schedules. Following a methodology known as Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE, Gunther supplies each employee with an iPhone, a set of quarterly goals and the freedom to work wherever and whenever they wish. Even company meetings are optional.

“We use the iPhone as an extension of our enterprise,” says Gunther. His companies include software maker Intalgent, systems integrator Meddius and OpenSpace, which rents workspace to individuals and companies by the hour.
Gunther adopted the approach to keep up with the increased pace of business. But giving employees control over their workday has another advantage. “The dirty little secret is that I get more work out of people this way,” he says. “We have goals that we define [for each employee] every three months, so it is easy to see who is producing and who is not.”

Most small businesses aren’t ready to replicate Gunther’s management technique. Yet even amid a slowly recovering economy, small and midsize companies appear to be holding fast to wireless technologies as a way to improve efficiency and remain competitive.

Nearly 80 percent expect to grow increasingly dependent on wireless technology during the next two years, according to an online survey in March by AT&T Corp. (a major provider of wireless service).

Cathy Martine, an executive vice president with AT&T Business Solutions in New Jersey, says businesses are looking for devices that help them manage far-flung business operations, track productivity and automate sales forces.
“We’re seeing a lot of demand from small businesses for line-of-business applications that help them operate more efficiently.” These include features such as remote dictation for people on the go and wireless “air” cards that track billable hours.

Telecommunication pro­viders in Virginia are preparing to meet the surging demand for wireless access, both by businesses and consumers. Since 2008 Shenandoah Telecommunications Co. in Edinburg, also known as Shentel, has spent more than $70 million to upgrade its wireless network, which extends from Harrisonburg along Interstate 81 in Virginia into central Pennsylvania. The upgrade supports “third generation” wireless technology, or 3g — an enhanced technology that enables wireless broadband users to access Web services and data at higher speeds than existing technologies. “We want to have the technology in place when the economy bounces back,” says Willy Pirtle, Shentel’s vice president of sales.

Some companies, he notes, have begun buying air time in bulk, a practice known in the industry as “prepay.” This involves paying for a set number of minutes and usually results in lower monthly bills than a pay-as-you-go plan.
At the same time, other companies are moving up the scale, buying high-tech phones that also double as minicomputers. These devices include the popular iPhone by Apple Computer Corp. and others that feature enough processing power to run commonly used applications. “Roughly half of all the wireless devices we now sell are smart phones or data cards. And that’s because companies are using wireless data as much as, if not more than, they are using voice services,” Pirtle says.

Partner MD, a Richmond concierge medical practice, has turned to the iPad (released in April) for a range of medical tasks, from answering patient emails to requesting prescriptions online. “An investment of $500 for an iPad is relatively inexpensive when compared to what we’d pay for a laptop or tablet,” says Steve Nardo, Partner MD’s CFO and IT director.

Nor is it only high-tech companies making the move. Tanker drivers at Winchester-based H.N. Funkhouser and Co. are no longer saddled with paperwork when delivering heating fuel to homes throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Before a driver arrives at the next stop, a wireless modem attached to the truck’s on-board computer automatically downloads the corresponding customer information from Funkhouser’s central database and “posts” it to the account.

Once the job is done, all the driver needs to do is print a paper invoice through the computer and present it for the customer’s signature. Reducing paperwork enables drivers to accomplish more during the workday and helps Funkhouser generate revenue sooner, says General Manager Chris Greene. “Typically, drivers used to make 20 to 25 stops a day. Now that they don’t spend half their day writing out tickets by hand, they average 30 to 35 stops a day.”

Each of Funkhouser’s 10 tanker wagons has its own wireless modem and accompanying phone number. The devices were installed two years ago by Shentel, an affiliate of wireless carrier Sprint.  The modems transmit data between Funkhouser’s main computer system and a variety of Internet-based services, including inventory control, fleet management and secure handling of credit-card transactions.

Funkhouser is a quintessential example of a medium-size company. It employs 400 people, including 60 in the home-heating unit. In addition, the company sells fuel directly to gas stations, travel centers and construction contractors and distributes motor oil for Havoline and ChevronTexaco. It’s mulling plans to equip other vehicles with wireless capabilities, particularly the heating/air conditioning and transport fleets. For now, the company is taking a measured approach and keeping an eye on implementation costs. “It’s expensive,” Greene says of the estimated $10,000 price tag for upgrading trucks with wireless modems, scanners and other mobile equipment.

Cost is one reason why many businesses continue to rely on “fixed” copper-based networks. However, they are willing to integrate wireless tools as an adjunct as the technologies converge, says Randy Nicklas, chief technology officer at Herndon-based XO Communications. XO provides both wireless and traditional communication services primarily to business. “Even with the advent of 4g networks, there is going to be a limited amount of radio spectrum available to enable us to carry bandwidth-hungry devices around” such as Apple’s new iPad, Nicklas says.

Still, momentum for wireless is building, albeit slowly, fueled by the rise of demographic shifts and new approaches for getting work done. Notes Gunther: “The nature of work is really changing. The overarching trend is that work is something people do, not a place they go.”

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