When only 3G will do

For Property Intelligence, providing roaming employees with adequate bandwidth has been an ongoing challenge. The business, which runs the online commercial property information service Focus, has staff constantly on the road around the UK, visiting sites, liaising with local surveyors and meeting with clients.

Simply keeping them in touch with the office using a mobile data application was well within the capabilities of existing GPRS networks. Key staff at the company already use BlackBerry handhelds for accessing email remotely, but Property Intelligence also needed a reliable, high bandwidth service in order to demonstrate its online information offering to potential clients. As the Focus service uses many multimedia files, including map overlays, a GPRS service would have been far too slow.

According to operations director Matthew Hopkinson, at around half of the sites his team visits, there is no Internet connection available to run a demonstration. That fuelled the company’s interest in 3G and an initial purchase of a dozen 3G data cards running on the Vodafone network.

The company’s early experience with the cards has been positive, although there are a few shortcomings.

Coverage for 3G services can be “sporadic”, says Hopkinson. “There will always be dead spots, but there have been times when we should have been able to rely on it, and it has not come up trumps,” he says.

Vodafone’s 3G cards, along with others on the market, fall back to the GPRS network when no 3G signal is available. For Property Intelligence, this is not a problem for office productivity applications, but Hopkinson would like to see wider 3G coverage to ensure the product demos go smoothly.

The company has opted for a 50Mb a month data bundle for its 3G cards, and so far this has proved perfectly adequate, says Hopkinson.

However, he is keen for Vodafone to build tighter usage controls into 3G accounts: one user did manage to run up a bill of £450 in a month for data charges.

“But 3G, where we can get it, helps us show our cutting-edge technology where it matters – at client sites,” Hopkinson says.


Creating drama-free access

At Estoril Technology, making productive use of time on the road is also a constant theme.

The Scotland-based company offers services and applications for mobile data capture at financial services clients, mostly based in the City of London or Edinburgh. Staff involved in supporting clients are on the road five days a week and need unfettered access to office data and applications.

With that in mind, the company has provided the 10 of its 45 staff that are directly involved in supporting clients using the mobile data capture system with 3G data cards from network provider O2. These plug into users’ tablet PCs, enabling high-speed access to the company’s virtual private network (VPN).

Estoril had previously used slower GPRS data cards, and is comfortable with the the fact that the new cards fall back on GPRS when 3G is not available.

“Because we are used to GPRS anyway, when there is limited bandwidth, we only download message headers,” says Martin MacLean, Estoril MD. “Even for browsing web sites, though, GPRS is fine. But 3G is a noticeable step up.”

As with other early 3G users, coverage is a concern. Estoril has found that the 3G footprint is good at some of the core locations its staff visit: Edinburgh, central London and at airports.

The company is managing costs by opting for a shared data bundle for its 3G cards; the cards are kept in a pool and issued to staff who need them for travelling. The company’s laptops are equipped with wireless LAN cards too, and MacLean is exploring the benefits of giving users access to WiFi hotspots, especially useful in locations such as airports. But the company has not completed testing that WiFi option.

“The concept of access to a faster [data] pipe is a good one, provided it is drama-free,” he says. “WiFi will give us the best bandwidth available, but I don’t want to give everyone separate WiFi and 3G cards.”

For Estoril, 3G is a necessity not a luxury. “We have people who are rarely in the office,” he says. “If we pulled this data access from them it would be a huge problem. We do have to spend a lot of time supporting our mobile users, but we are happy with 3G so far.”



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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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