Way back in the hoary year of 2010, if there was an electric outage in Bristol, line workers with the BVU Authority, a municipal utility company, would have to radio or call in from the field to get information from dispatchers. Sometimes it could be difficult to hear what dispatchers were saying; sometimes the technician would be out of radio range; and frequently it could take a while to relay necessary information back and forth.
Fast-forward to 2012: BVU Authority line crews and engineers carry iPads and iPhones equipped with an app developed in-house that pulls real-time data from its power management database. Connecting to Verizon’s mobile 3G network in Bristol, line workers can call up virtually any information from maps and outage logs all the way down to data about individual outages — who called in, when and where that customer is located.
“I think there’s a lot of businesses out there who could benefit from things like this, to be able to access their data from anywhere they are,” says BVU Authority Network operations manager Adam Martin. “It can save money and time. It’s been a really good solution for us.”
Increasingly, companies worldwide are integrating mobile smartphones and tablets into their businesses, and they’re taking advantage of new share plans to defray the cost. Just two or three years ago a relatively small number of tech-savvy early adopters in companies were using tablets and smartphones; now the devices are a staff-wide tool for some businesses.
Adoption rates have risen so quickly among individuals, families and businesses that Verizon and AT&T have changed their mobile-data plans to reflect the phenomenon, rolling out data-sharing plans that reflect a customer’s use of a variety of mobile devices.
“Using multiple devices during the course of the workday is a growing trend and quickly becoming the norm,” says Verizon Wireless spokesperson Melanie Ortel. “Many of us can hardly imagine not using some combination of smartphones, tablets, netbooks, mobile hotspots and USB modems throughout our day. Plans are evolving to meet those needs.”
iPads in use
In Southwest Virginia, “demand has been overwhelming” for the free iPad business productivity classes offered by the Virginia Department of Business Assistance (VDBA), says Sandy Ratliff, business services manager for VDBA’s Southwest Office.
BVU Authority incorporated iPad usage into its business practices in late 2011. The company’s board of directors uses iPads to conduct paperless meetings. BVU Authority’s five-person sales force uses iPads when selling its OptiNet fiber-optic, high-speed Internet, phone and cable television services.
Salespeople look up rates and fill out contracts on the iPad, handing over their tablets to customers for a digital signature. “It’s really good for outside sales because you don’t have to lug around a big bag of tricks,” says BVU OptiNet sales manager Connie Moffatt. And “if we need to change something [on the contract], it’s so much easier to pull that up on the iPad and change a quantity or speed of Internet … because if you write it out [on paper], you’ve got to start over.”
Another firm that has recently implemented the use of wireless-equipped iPads to streamline their business processes is PCI of Virginia, which manages the Port of Richmond, a truck and barge port leased by the Virginia Port Authority.
PCI launched a pilot program in September to monitor cargo inventory and security cameras in real time using Navis SPARCS N4 software on iPads. “It gives our customers instant visibility for their inventory and where that container might be at the Port of Richmond at any given time,” says terminal manager Jim Bailey.
Previously, port workers would have to take information down on paper, walk back to the terminal office and input the data to computers, a time-consuming process. Now they can instantly send and access live data and photos from anywhere in the port yard.
The pilot project is an initiative of Virginia International Terminals Inc., the nonprofit entity that operates the Port of Virginia. It eventually plans to expand the mobile, real-time cargo inventory management system to the Port of Virginia facilities in Hampton Roads and the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal.
Shared plans debut
Responding to the explosion of mobile device usage, Verizon rolled out its Share Everything data sharing plan in early summer. AT&T launched a Mobile Share plan in late August.
Before these plans were offered, users would have to purchase a separate data plan for each of their mobile devices, such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop. This cost could add up for a business or family with individuals using several devices. Now, for instance, with Verizon’s Share Everything plan, customers purchase one data plan and share a fixed amount of data using up to 10 devices.
Data-sharing plans also are available for larger businesses, typically offering greater discounts and much larger amounts of data usage.
Shared plans are simpler for billing and accounting purposes and are “much easier for customers to understand,” says Weston Henderek, principal analyst specializing in wireless services for Sterling-based market research and analysis firm Current Analysis. “You can buy one data plan and add devices to it and pull data from your overall plan. … Even if you don’t understand the amount of data you’re getting ― even if you don’t fully understand megabytes or gigabytes ― you can understand a fixed bucket of data that you can share between devices.’’
For families and businesses with several smartphones and mobile devices that use a lot of data, the new share plans can save them as much as 30 percent on bills, Henderek says. But for groups who aren’t using their data allotments or for single users, it may make more sense to stay with existing plans. Another benefit of share plans is that they allow tethering, the ability to create a mobile, wi-fi hotspot with a smartphone so that people can connect other mobile devices to the Internet when they are on the go.
Eventually, shared plans may encourage more use of mobile devices. As usage grows, though, customers may see increases in data-plan pricing. “Data is what gobbles up more network capacity and causes capacity issues more than voice,” says Henderek. “If you’re watching something on YouTube, that uses so much more capacity than if you’re making a simple phone call. The carriers have recognized they’re going to have to change the model somehow.”
Automation Creations Inc., a Blacksburg-based custom software development and web design firm, converted to the Verizon data-sharing plan in August. All 20 employees have iPads and five of those iPads are connected wirelessly to Verizon’s high-speed 4G LTE wireless network outside the office. The plan “saved us a couple bucks and we got a couple extra gigabytes” of data usage, says company president Henry Bass.
Automation Creations hasn’t had problems with exceeding its allotted data pool yet, but the very fact that multiple users now are sharing data could be a problem for companies and families, Henderek says. “One of the weaknesses of these plans is say you bought a 10-gigabyte plan, and your wife and your kids are on there,” he says. “One of your kids in theory could use nine of those 10 gigabytes using YouTube, and it uses all the data you wanted to use.”
Verizon and AT&T offer tracking tools and optional-usage control features to allocate how much data each user can utilize per month. Still, share plans also might require some old-fashioned, off-line interfacing as in “don’t hog all the data.”
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