How companies are using wireless networks

There is much hype surrounding the potential of next-generation wireless networks such as HSPDA, but are businesses really buying into the technology?

Within two years, organisations will deploy 3G and 3.5G networks as the norm, providing them with the means to exploit demand for more sophisticated mobile applications such as videoconferencing.

These are the findings of a study undertaken by ZDNet.co.uk in association with market researcher Rhetorik Market Intelligence, among 371 UK-based organisations with some degree of mobility within their workforce.

The survey also indicated that the adoption of high-speed data networks is already an important fact of life for many companies, particularly large companies. Of those organisations that were aware of which networks they subscribed to, more than half (53 percent) had deployed 3G in the shape of the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS).

One in five organisations — about half of which were large corporates — had even deployed some form of 3.5G technology, which would appear to indicate that increasing numbers of mobile users are driving demand for higher bandwidth. About 16 percent of respondents had employed High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) technology among some user groups, while four percent had gone for High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA).

Moreover, around half of those questioned expect these adoption figures to rise over the next couple of years, as they begin to take more advantage of either 3G or 3.5G technologies until eventually it becomes the default.

UMTS began to appear on the scene from 2003 and provides typical transmission speeds of 384Kbps (kilobits per second). Since 2006, however, mobile operators have been progressively upgrading their networks to HSDPA, which supports download speeds of 1.8, 3.6, 7.2 and 14.4Mbps (megabits per second). Although work is less advanced on HSUPA, this network can theoretically offer upload speeds of 5.7 Mbps.

Despite these advances, about two-thirds of those questioned are still subscribing to more traditional technologies — often alongside newer ones — although the usage of such lower-bandwidth networks is expected gradually to fall over time.

Some 68 percent of organisations that knew which networks they were deploying currently use Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) or 2G technology, which first became available in Europe in 1991. About 66 percent also subscribe to General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) or 2.5G data networks.

GPRS networks are based on packet-switching technology and overlay GSM to provide download rates of between 60Kbps and 80Kbps, and upload rates of between 20Kbps and 10Kbps. This compares with the relatively low data-transfer speeds of 9.6Kbps provided by GSM, which is based on circuit-switched connections.

Encouraging results
Rick Paskins, managing director at Rhetorik, says: "Companies are using a broad spread of networks and often have multiple technologies in use for different applications and different users within the enterprise. However, it is encouraging to note that implementation of higher-bandwidth technologies is already significant, despite the delays in rolling out 3G in the early part of this decade."

As to why more organisations are choosing not to upgrade the speed of their network connections now that this is possible, the main inhibitors relate to cost and security issues. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said that airtime/online fees were either an important or very important barrier to adoption, while just over two-thirds were put off by the cost of upgrading their existing business applications. The same number was also wary of the increased sophistication and price of new devices.

Potential security threats brought about by increasing levels of remote access to business applications were a cause for concern among 65 percent of respondents, while other significant worries were linked to device management and support issues.

But such anxieties were offset to a certain extent by the potential benefits faster connections could provide with regard to remote and home users. Nearly three-quarters of those questioned believed...

...that the ability to increase the efficiency of remote workers was either an important or very important reason to boost mobile network speeds, while about 70 percent felt that they needed more bandwidth to cope with the ever-growing size of data files and applications that were being accessed remotely.

Other key drivers included rising demand by end-users for remote access, a general increase in the number of mobile and home workers and a desire by organisations to reduce current levels of business travel.

"With the ever-increasing trend in mobile working within UK organisations, it is perhaps not surprising that efficiencies in use as well as demand for better access to applications by remote workers are among the top three drivers for higher-speed networks. The trend towards home-working for some staff over all or part of the working week is also an important factor in this regard," explains Paskins.

Interest among end-users in using a broader range of mobile applications appears to be strong. This means if existing issues surrounding bandwidth, cost and availability could be overcome, the use of many packages would increase significantly in UK companies of all sizes. Unsurprisingly, the mobile applications that organisations would most like to deploy in the future, if constraints were removed, are those that are already the most popular — a fact that implies there is still plenty of room for growth in the market. Mobile applications included in this category are email (87 percent), voice (84 percent), internet access (83 percent), data communications (81 percent), SMS text messaging (73 percent) and electronic calendars/diaries (69 percent).

There also seems to be much latent demand for a second tier of packages, which between one-half and two-thirds of respondents indicated they would be interested in purchasing if cost and bandwidth constraints were no longer an issue. These consist of global positioning systems (GPS), instant messaging, mobile videoconferencing and database applications, and it is here, says the report, that "the greatest potential for increased usage lies".

Uptake potential
"These applications offer the potential for very strong growth in uptake in the future. Approximately 40 to 45 percent of the respondent base could potentially be new adopters of these applications if constraints were removed," the report states. Such constraints are having little impact on the use of key applications such as voice and SMS text messaging, however.

But this is not to imply that these are the only systems of interest. Should existing inhibitors to higher-bandwidth adoption be eradicated, about 36 percent of those surveyed could be expected to go for shared workspace technology in order to help them collaborate more effectively.

Between 25 and 30 percent, meanwhile, would adopt contactless smartcards, whiteboards, high-quality video, presence and video applications, and provide access to such business process-based systems as customer relationship management. These figures are likely to reflect both the number of potential users for such software within any given organisation, as well as the perceived value that could be derived from their deployment, despite the fact that "many of these applications are in limited use on mobile devices today".

Finally, the applications category in which organisations showed the lowest levels of interest comprised access to corporate enterprise resource planning and management systems, push-to-talk packages and image capture and transmission applications. Nonetheless, the report points out that these still offer "significant potential", with between 15 and 20 percent of respondents likely to implement them for the first time at some point in the future.

Of the 371 executives that took part in the survey, about 30 percent worked in large corporates with more than 1,000 staff; 29 percent were employed by small-to-medium enterprises with between 11 and 250 employees; 23 percent had one to 10 personnel; 13 percent had a headcount of between 251 and 1,000 and the rest did not know.

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