Small Business Gets Moving

By Tim Wilson
Special from

Wireless and mobility tips for the little guy

We've all said it – "Can't be in two places at once!" Small business knows the feeling. The big guys can cover geographies and fill offices with support staff; the little guys are left playing catch-up.

But things are changing. New wireless applications and services are giving muscle to smaller business, enhancing productivity by making the office mobile and – when compared to adding human or physical resources – at a mighty reasonable cost, too.

Marc Choma, Director of Communications for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunication Association (CWTA), believes that wireless technology allows small business to compete like never before. "We are at the point where anything done at a desk can be done remotely," he says, adding that "The technology is becoming easier to use; it's faster and more accessible."

Accessibility is driven in part by adoption rates. There are more than 16 million wireless phone users in Canada, or roughly half the population. Laptops are now sold with built-in wireless enablement, and communication service carriers in Canada have established more than a thousand “hot-spots,” offering free wireless communication service access. Add to it the fact that wireless carriers are at or near third generation, or "3G", speed, that delivers performance comparable to DSL services, and it's easy to see how office functionality can be expanded to almost anywhere.

Still, it's evident that mobile communications products make the biggest difference for businesses are inherently distributed in many locations and rely on scatter resources and people. A specialized local or regional courier company, for example, can send its data in real-time to a central office in much the same way that its big, international competitors do. In fact, fleet operations of any sort can benefit from permanent wireless access built into the vehicles.

Arguments for wireless, then, are often industry specific. Inventory tracking and merchandise routing, as well as supervisor alerts, are effective tools for manufacturing and warehousing. Areas where staff flexibility and responsiveness is essential, such as in healthcare and tourism, can receive obvious benefits by not tying people to fixed locales. And retail solutions allow for point of service transactions to occur virtually anywhere.

These operational efficiencies can help a small business be more competitive. Improved customer services and cost reductions directly increase revenue and profitability. Given the speed of change, it may also be a basic requirement: not only for success, but for survival as well.

Chris Langdon, Telus's director of Wireless Business Solutions, echoes the CWTA's Choma in emphasizing the importance for small business of keeping in touch with employees. "This is most prevalent for small and medium enterprises. Whether by voice or text, they need to keep in touch with suppliers and with their workforce."

And now that isn't so hard to do. High-speed wireless email and data networks in major Canadian markets are clocking in at between 400 to 700 kilobytes per second – as fast as an office LAN or a home provider. This allows the small business user to access their own information with ease and speed. With Canada at more than 50% cellular penetration among the population, the real wireless revolution has begun. The proliferation of smart phones and, in particular, of sophisticated mobile operating platforms, can give a lot of communication power to a small organization.

It all sounds great. But should a small business, then, simply gobble up whatever carriers and vendors are offering? Not necessarily. Many small businesses are rightly a little suspicious of the vendor over-sell. The key is to ask a couple of simple questions: What am I trying to accomplish and what are my pain points? In the end, perhaps only a few employees need remote access to email or improved voice communications, with the rest fully-functional at their desks.

The bottom line: It's important to find a vendor or carrier who is interested in how you do business, and not simply in the technological capabilities of their products. If the benefit to your business isn't obvious, don't buy it.

The good news is that once needs are determined, extending remote and wireless capabilities to staff needn't be a budget-breaker. Prices are coming down, and capabilities are on the rise. With the arrival of 3G wireless, network costs associated with remote dial-in from a hotel, for example, disappear. And it's fast. "We're talking about remote LANs here," says Langdon, "extending that level of productivity to wherever you are." You'll want something that can log into your server to take advantage of the best speed and security options. Basic application access to office software is a must.

Often there is an industry-specific solution for small business – that's definitely worth a second look. If a company has gone to the effort to package a solution for, say, construction, it usually means they've invested some time and money. In fact, they might just get it. Real-time demos and referenced accounts are sure signs that the solution is for real, and not just an excuse to unload some toys.

Consider whether your business model is unique – something that the carrier or vendor has never seen before. And make certain they have their own sales people who know the SME space. After initial contact, give them a few days to do some pre-research. Then, bring them in for a meeting. It shouldn't take more than an hour or two, and it should be free. Ask them to come back when they've figured it out, and go from there. You don't want to be oversold, but you also want to be able to use your imagination: in many cases mobile/wireless solutions can be transformative.

The big carriers are doing their best to make smaller customers feel secure. Network availability now comes with guarantees. Some, such as Bell Canada, are willing to assist with network design and architecture, and will also help with third party vendor selection, security design and implementation. Even ROI validation can be part of the mix.

In the end, a good mobile solution should mean that your small business doesn't have to add people to gather and forward data. It should mean that users don't have to be IT nerds. And it should be put together with an eye to tomorrow, because that's where the competition is.


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