Wireless Dispatching
By Michael Grebb, Tue Oct 01 00:00:00 GMT 2002

More work with less paperwork...


Andy Rodenhiser had noticed something in recent
years. As the owner of Rodenhiser Plumbing & Heating in Holliston,
Mass., he had walked many convention floors in search of products that
could help his business get to the next level. But more and more, the
usual showcases of pipes and fixtures had become a parade of blinking,
electronic gadgetry. “The concept of using laptops in the field kind of
tickled my mind,” he says. So in May, Rodenhiser contracted with
Gearworks, an Eagan, Minn.-based firm that facilitates wireless
connectivity between mobile workers in the field and the dispatch
office.

Such “wireless dispatching” allows businesses to shave
hours off of each job in the field, monitor trucks with global
positioning satellite (GPS) systems, and assign jobs in the most
efficient manner possible - saving gas, wasted overtime, and ultimately
money. Rodenhiser, who began installing the Gearworks system in May,
says he’ll save $750,000 in 2002 using wireless dispatch technology -
not a small amount for a company with $3.5 million in annual revenues.
“I can do more transactions per day with less paperwork,” he says,
adding that he continues to tweak the system. “I have all kinds of ideas
for enhancements,” he says. “The lid is just beginning to be blown off
of this thing.”

To be sure, the nascent market for wireless
dispatching services is scraping the cusp of a growth curve. According
to The Yankee Group, field technicians and engineers now make up 28% of
all mobile workers among large enterprises. In a May 2002 report, the
research firm predicted that wireless field service solutions will
increase from $700 million currently to more than $2 billion by 2006,
with more than two million U.S. field service workers using software
with wireless data capabilities by 2008.

AT&T Wireless, for
example, has started testing a new wireless dispatching system with
Federal Express, which will use AT&T Wireless’ general packet radio
service (GPRS) spectrum to let couriers update customer-package
information almost immediately. They will also have wireless online
access to up-to-date shipping information, such as inclement weather
advisories, customs-clearance information and shipping rates. AT&T
Wireless will integrate its service to work with FedEx’s “PowerPad”
wireless device now being used by couriers in the field.

“Right
now, the driver has to go back to the truck every time he wants to
signal back to the station,” notes AT&T spokesman Ritch Blasi.
“Now, when they go to an apartment building, they won’t have to keep
going back and forth.” Blasi says it’s unclear exactly how much data
traffic will be driven by wireless dispatching but that it will indeed
be a key area of growth for wireless carriers. “Transportation is a big
market right now,” he says.

Evolutionary, not
Revolutionary


Despite the expected growth,
wireless dispatching has yet to become a mass-market business. “The vast
majority of businesses do not have a wireless device other than a cell
phone,” says Surya Jayaweera, CEO of WolfeTech, a Claremont,
Calif.-based software developer for wireless devices. “I see wireless
dispatching over the next five years as evolutionary, not
revolutionary.” Others say that interest has been steadily gaining, even
among small business owners who tend to spend money more conservatively.


“Over the last three to four years, there has been a decent
buzz about the technology,” says Tim VanCleve, vice president of
marketing for Teletrac, a Garden Grove, Calif.-based firm whose flagship
product, FleetDirector, allows business owners to track its vehicles via
GPS. VanCleve estimates that only about 3 to 4 percent of businesses
have adopted wireless dispatching, but he says owners are increasingly
interested. “We’re really starting to see a ramp-up period in terms of
acceptance of the technology and a willingness to move forward,” he
says. “There’s considerable room for growth.”

To get
there, vendors are pitching business owners that their outdated and
unnecessarily inefficient systems are costing them money, especially for
businesses that rely on workers making customer service calls, or
product deliveries and pickups in the field. Most wireless dispatching
systems use existing terrestrial wireless networks, some in partnership
with traditional wireless carriers, to handle communications between
field technicians and dispatchers (GPS receivers, of course, use
spectrum allocated to satellites). Workers either check in using a fixed
apparatus in their vehicle or with a portable device that in some cases
is simply a modified laptop of PDA.

Rodenhiser says dispatchers
no longer scramble to find an available truck when a frantic customer
calls with an emergency, thanks to a GPS system that allows the main
office to track all of its trucks in real time. “If a customer has a
gas leak, that’s a top priority,” says Rodenhiser. “We’ll send our
closest trucks, and so we use our resources better.”

In fact,
some business owners who worry about their employees using vehicles for
“side work” or personal business don’t allow them to drive vehicles
home. Forcing employees to drop off vehicles at the office before they
clock out obviously adds time that could otherwise be spent at a job or
even off the clock. “Now they can let them take the trucks home and not
worry about it,” VanCleve says.

Salient
Issues


One major hurdle for wireless
dispatching companies is to convince business owners that such services
don’t necessarily cost millions of dollars and require a huge up-front
outlay of capital. In fact, hardware and system costs have declined to
levels that would have been unheard-of less than a decade ago. For
example, Teletrac’s system costs about $550 to $750 per truck, but it
offers a lease option of about $75 per month per truck. Naperville,
Ill.-based Mobility Concepts leases wireless dispatching equipment for
as little as $40 to $60 per truck per month and can also help companies
contract with a wireless provider. One client involved in frozen-food
delivery in rural areas makes novel use of the system; if a customer
isn’t home, the driver can pinpoint other customers in the area and
make door-to-door sales rather than return to the office right away.
“They have a lot of flexibility while they’re on the road,” says Louis
Panetta, VP of marketing.

After cost, the next concern is how
employees will react to the constant surveillance. “The biggest reaction
is the Big Brother deal,” VanCleve says. “A lot of employers worry about
what their employees will think.” The benefits can be double-plus-good.
VanCleve says one Teletrac customer with 30 vehicles eliminated enough
overtime to pay for the system in the first month and others have saved
20 to 30 percent on gas. “The Big Brother thing lasts about a week,” he
says, noting that some employees have warmed to the system because it
exposes those who aren’t pulling their weight. “Drivers don’t want to
rat somebody out,” he says.

Not only does wireless dispatching
allow companies to track vehicles and employees, but owners can also
build complex work records for each employee based on how many jobs were
completed, how long they took to complete them, and other factors. Such
measurements can make often subjective performance reviews more a matter
of science. According to Tony Duck, VP of marketing for PointServe, an
Austin, Tex.-based service supply chain management firm, PointServe
client Time Warner Cable in New York City has created new incentive
packages and compensation structures based on the ability to track the
specific work habits of each employee. The new system has actually
created more options for union negotiations, easing the process for both
sides. “How do you really put a value on that?,” asks Duck.


Not So Straightforward

Then again,
businesses shouldn’t get the impression from any vendor that a switch to
wireless dispatching doesn’t carry certain short-term hassles. In fact,
the integration issues can be huge as a business tries to reconcile its
incompatible software, service order templates, and invoicing systems.
“You would think that if it’s the same organization, they would have the
same formats,” says Duck. “But they don’t. That’s a typical low-end
problem that can suck away a lot of time.”

Then there’s the
sometimes time-consuming task of employee training. “Cost and time of
training varies based on the functionality being utilized by the
staff,” says Greg Chun, CEO of Greco Technologies, a Pasadena,
Calif.-based enterprise solution company. “More training is definitely
required for management and administration.” In addition, Duck points
out that business owners often have no idea how inefficient their
current systems are, making it difficult to calculate ROI for a new
wireless dispatching system. “It’s very important to benchmark current
performance,” he says. “We have universally found that the reality is
significantly different from what people believe it to be when we start
the process.”

To be sure, wireless dispatching might be gaining
steam at just the right time. With the global economy under stress,
many executives that propped up the technology industry for years have
grown skeptical. “There’s been a huge backlash in the white-collar
world against wireless technology,” says Steve McDonald, director of
the mobile and wireless technologies group at Norcross, Ga.-based
Optimus Solutions. Part of the reason is that the benefits of
connecting executives and sales forces to wireless networks are
relatively intangible and difficult to quantify.

The same
isn’t always true for field service businesses. McDonald notes a recent
Optimus client involved in paintless dent removal; some of the
company’s costs were “so blatant and blinding” that the benefits of
using wireless dispatching quickly became obvious. “They have a better
perception of the one-to-one relationship between the device and the
problem they need to solve,” he says.

So should wireless
vendors start cold-calling plumbers, electricians, and tow-truck
companies? Back at Rodenhiser Plumbing & Heating, owner Andy
Rodenhiser acknowledges that he had thought about wireless networking
for years before he finally got a sales call from Gearworks. “I
listened to them because it was something I was very interested in,” he
recalls. That should be welcome news for wireless vendors
everywhere.

Michael Grebb has previously
written for The 'now-defunct' Industry Standard, Business 2.0,
and eCompany. From Washington DC, he covers the impact of mobile
technology on modern
society.