Today’s wireless devices put a world of information and connectivity at your fingertips,
but which is right for your company?
In the construction world, mobile electronic products are pushing information accessibility – and accountability – deeper into the field. Wireless laptops, personal digital assistants and smartphones are replacing flip phones and two-way radios at an ever-increasing clip.
It’s no wonder. These new tools of the trades can eliminate paperwork and take accountability to new levels. It allows information to move at the speed of light, instead of the speed of Dwight, by taking the human element and chance of error out of the process.
Options and obsolescence
Wireless telecommunications product development travels at hyperspeed in the world of commerce.
Cell phone service providers seem to roll out new products and services on an almost monthly basis. That ultra-fast speed to market is a two-edged sword: While your new cell phone or wireless device will be smaller, more powerful and easier to use than your older model, it’s also very likely it will become nearly or totally obsolete before the service contract expires.
Staying abreast of these product and technology advances is much like keeping up with advances in power tools: It takes a certain passion to follow the industry so you can leverage the new tools to your benefit.
Contractors can tap into a variety of platforms that can push and pull data from the front line of the jobsite. By no means complete and exhaustive, here are the leading platforms, each with permutations of options. Perhaps the most difficult part is sorting out the options and then seeing which will fit into your business now and in the future.
Walkie-talkies: Two-way FM radios still provide economical, private and low-cost communication on jobsites. They cost less initially; don’t incur monthly charges; and don’t require long-term contracts. They are built to take the physical punishment on a construction site. They provide instant communication – there’s no need to dial and wait for the other party to pick up, so communication can be almost instantaneous.
Wireless networks: It’s not uncommon to see a wireless router positioned somewhere on a jobsite, providing a secure link of online company data and services with authorized wireless devices on the jobsite. Computer tablets, laptop computers, personal digital assistants and even surveillance equipment can tap into the network to provide real-time data exchange.
There’s also no need to worry about minutes or online access fees, since it’s a network most often set up by the information technology department. It’s simply an extension of the company’s information infrastructure.
Cellular services: NexTel and other two-way radios commonly used by contractors as few as five years ago are quickly being replaced by full-featured cellular phones and networks. They promise to dominate the market with ever-increasing data handling capability and lower rates.
Although cellular services provide incredible flexibility, complexity comes with them. National carriers, such as AT&T, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon and a variety of other players continue to toss out multi-tiered plans that can perplex even the most tech- and plan-savvy contractor.
Heavily populated areas have the most choices of service providers, however, if your jobs take you into more rural areas, cellular users could be marooned with poor data exchange and spotty or no phone access.
New 4G networks are being built in highly populated areas and will provide 5 to 12 megabits per second (Mbps) connection speeds, and 3G networks are replacing older cell phone networks in many areas of the country. But in rural areas that lack 3G or 4G service, data transfer speed will be incredibly slow or impossible, rendering your smartphone to be, well, not so smart.
Getting smarter than the smartphones
Smartphones offer Internet, phone and network connectivity for fast, easy data transfer. Many have higher-quality still/video cameras that take respectable images many companies now require to document work that needs to be done, has been done, or safety issues.
BlackBerry units lead in popularity in smartphone models. They have a camera, and offer excellent e-mail access, which is the most popular non-phone use for smartphones. They are available as part of several cellular phone plans.
Conversely, iPhone smartphones are only available through service contracts with AT&T. That exclusive agreement will end in 2012. Hyped as an extremely intuitive/easy-touse smartphone, it has more than 100,000 programs (apps) available, many at a low cost or free. However, the combination of IT departments’ common disdain for Apple products and AT&T’s spotty but improving reputation for signal strength may have some bearing on your company’s selection process. iPhone users can talk and use an app simultaneously;
its new 4G iPhones are reported to be able to run several apps simultaneously. However, they will not run Java-based apps, which are used extensively by other Internet-based programs.
Google’s Android is the latest comer to the cellular smartphone arena. It’s built upon totally open-based programming, embraces Java-based programming and can also multi-task apps. Being newer to the smartphone arena, fewer apps are available, but the open-source code should quickly attract apps development.
Selecting the right communications device for your business is a strategic decision that could have positive – or not so positive – effects on your business for years to come (considering most require a two-year contract). The best advice: Find a service provider representative who understands the construction business. They can help you best leverage the providers’ coverage, speed and construction-related apps that fit your business.