Field Service and the Holy Triangle: 4G LTE, Mobile Devices, and User Apps
Author: Kerry Doyle
Broad numbers of field service organizations are adopting cloud services and embracing mobile solutions. This trend is achieving widespread acceptance because the cloud provides a range of capabilities, from employing task-oriented apps to mobile-based collaboration tools. However, access to mobile solutions often competes with concerns related to security and data stored on remote cloud servers.
As field service organizations move toward reliance on the cloud and mobility, key factors related to their effectiveness are coming into play. First, Long-term Evolution (LTE) regional upgrades, also known as 4G, promise faster connectivity and efficiency.
Increased data streams are especially important in terms of mobility and machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity, a technology integral to asset management in a range of heavy industries. Secondly, low-cost apps represent an important resource accessed by all levels of field service, from remote technicians in the field to dispatchers and administrators.
Finally, the increased affordability of mobile hardware frequently leads to technicians who utilize multiple devices, such as a truck-mounted laptop or rugged device, and a personal smartphone. However, these trends have also led to diminished IT control. Any loss of oversight is a cause of concern to a broad spectrum of IT leaders and executives.
Efficiently managing such a range of devices beyond an organization’s firewall is one cause for IT concern as well as possible security breaches and compromised data. The question to ask: Will a more advanced 4G infrastructure, diverse mobile devices and affordable apps increase field service IT buy-in?
The massive throughput and low latency period of LTE technology enable easy access for large-scale operations, including fleet management, asset monitoring, navigation and video content. According to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index (VNI), global mobile traffic grew 70 percent in 2012, making up 2 percent of total global IP traffic.
In 2017, global mobile will reach nine percent of overall IP traffic. To provide efficient capacity, cellular networks (4G LTE, etc.) need to keep pace. 3G/UMTS technology is now more than ten years old and unable to meet the data-hungry needs of today’s businesses and users. Speed and reliability represent the holy grail of 4G performance.
Each of the four major telecomm companies (Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon) are in different stages of infrastructure deployment for 2014 and beyond, each with a gradual, steady roll-out. These include Verizon’s network building in major U.S. cities and Sprint’s focus on its Spark initiative, defined as a revolution in mobile broadband, combining three disparate bands in a kind of super-LTE system
Field service mobile usage and its increased reliance on mobile apps cannot tolerate sub-par performance. With more power packed into smaller devices, seamless connectivity is critical. Deploying dedicated applications and small, nimble, task-centric apps, companies can maintain their own security, customize according to internal needs and bypass off-the-shelf solutions.
Cloud-based solutions and apps provide tremendous flexibility and potential for expansion, while keeping solution costs predictable and manageable. HTML5 and the browser are now the basis for field service application development. These expanded user interfaces include richer voice and video with new connectivity features.
It’s no surprise that app reliance extends to diverse verticals, including utilities, resource mining, manufacturing and construction. As we move into a more digitally based and connected world, apps represent the cornerstone of productivity and efficiency. At the moment, smart devices—smartphones, tablets rugged handhelds—rely on a combination of older applications and newer apps.
As the cloud increasingly dominates the mobile computing environment, look for adaptable development that bundles together multiple apps to achieve the same goals as larger legacy applications and providing increased control for IT.
According to the GSMA, the global mobile industry trade group, the total number of devices in 2012 will double from six billion to 12 billion by 2020. It’s possible that the actual mobile device is becoming far less important than the networks and services that support it. Most of what users value—applications, media and content—increasingly reside in the cloud.
In addition, while the prices for the actual hardware are more affordable, the costs for connectivity and services are becoming the main expense. In terms of corporate sponsorship and IT buy-in, many field service organizations are choosing a hybrid approach to mobile device usage.
That is, remote field technicians are generally relying on that truck mounted device or rugged hand-held and supplementing it with a personal device, such as a smartphone or tablet. The key concern for IT then becomes the management of those devices.
One way that IT is coping is through deployment of Mobile Device Management (MDM). These solutions are providing levels of security that enable controls, such as remote wipe and device lock as well as password protection and firewall support.
It remains to be seen how 4G LTE upgrades, increased app reliance and more affordable hardware will effect mobile adoption for field service. It’s likely that more improvements and increased accessibility will create a compelling attraction that’s hard to avoid. In the end, IT will have little choice but to create unique, customized safeguards and controls as current needs dictate.