Ann Arbor Area BUSINESS MONTHLY magazine brings the reader the latest business news and information important to the businesspeople in Washtenaw County. Each month articles cover real estate, legal, Internet, employee concerns and the climate of business in the greater Ann Arbor area. There is news about company employees and feature articles on local businesses. We cover business news from Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, Milan, Saline, Whitmore Lake, and Ypsilanti.
Communication Technology Changing At A Rapid Pace
Wireless Washtenaw Selects 20/20 Communication For Lead Project
Noah Wolff, data specialist for 20/20 Communication, with their huge display of wireless equipment and accessories.
By Kate Kellog
Communications technology today forms the infrastructure of the business world. Most of us have at least two or three phone numbers on our business cards, as well as e-mail and website addresses. Businesses are faced with an increasing number of choices in Internet connections, wireless phones, and other devices for transmitting voice and data. No sooner have you invested in an upgrade, when along comes something new and better.
While the Ann Arbor area abounds in wireless and Internet service providers, we selected a single company to help identify a few of the newest communications products and explain how they may help your business operate more efficiently.
20/20 Communications is one of the few, if not the only, local company that provides wireless voice and data products and services along with Internet access. The full service telecommunications provider is the largest wireless Internet provider in the region, with retail locations in Ypsilanti, Scio Township, downtown Ann Arbor, Plymouth, and Jackson, Michigan. The company was formed last fall through a merger of Ann Arbor Wireless with the Ann Arbor-based Internet service company, IC.net. Early this year, 20/20 expanded its wireless Internet business by purchasing PCS Broadband of Jackson.
The merger and acquisition has enabled 20/20 to serve a broader customer base, “particularly the rural and untapped communities in the area between Ann Arbor and Jackson, who typically don’t have high-speed lines, and have dial-up or satellite products as their only Internet option,” says Mark McCleary, CEO of 20/20 and founder of Ann Arbor Wireless. Using public access wireless (and soon the farther-reaching WiMAX) technology, the company offers high-speed wireless Internet connections to residents and businesses in Ann Arbor, Saline and Sylvan and Scio Townships. Wireless Fidelity or WiFi uses radio waves to set up communication links between devices—such as laptops and PDAs—and the Internet. WiFi Internet access will soon take a huge leap forward when Wireless Washtenaw is up and running by late 2007.
The Wireless Washtenaw Advisory Board recently announced its unanimous selection of 20/20 as the lead vendor for the county-wide project. The initiative aims to provide affordable wireless Internet access for the entire Washtenaw Community by way of a wireless network. The County Board of Commissioners is expected to officially accept 20/20’s bid in July. “We are naturally very excited,” says Noah Wolff, the company’s wireless data specialist. “We hope to begin building Wireless Washtenaw’s pilot network this summer with multiple access points in Manchester, Saline, and Chelsea. We’re confident that the entire county will be hot by the end of 2007.”
Talking Over the Internet
In the meantime, 20/20 continues to expand its menu of mobile voice and data products, as well as fixed and wireless Internet access technologies. Increasingly, the boundary between cell phone technology and Internet connectivity is blurring. That is certainly the case with Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the technology that enables voices to travel over the Internet, rather than traditional phone lines.
20/20 recently introduced Business Vision Pro, a product based on VoIP. It’s essentially a digital phone service that connects a business’s telephones to a high-speed Internet modem using an adapter. You can use your existing phones in the traditional manner for local and long distance calls anywhere in the United States. The only prerequisite is a high-speed Internet connection, such as DSL or a T1 service. Vision Pro, and most other Internet phone services, include features such as voice mail, call forwarding, and Caller ID. Vision Pro’s 24-month contract charges $11.99 per-month-per-line with a one-time $49.99 installation fee. Wolff estimates that a business that already has a broadband connection could save a minimum of 20 percent annually on phone bills by switching from analog to digital phones with VoIP.
While some companies charge a flat rate for a specific number of minutes, Vision Pro charges only for the time you use. When customers “bundle” their Internet with Vision Pro they receive 20/20’s Quality of Service system. This “traffic cop” technology gives phone calls first priority over Internet traffic to ensure uninterrupted voice service. “That means you may have to wait a half-second for a web page to come up now and then” Wolff laughs.
Of course, VoIP is only as reliable as your Internet connection. Should your Internet go down, so will your phones. In the event of a power outage, the Vision Pro automatically routes calls to the users’ cell phones, notes Wolff.
One caveat: New VoIP users may need to fill out an emergency services registration form since 911 operators won’t be able to identify their calls by address as they do with land lines. The registration process also alerts the operator to double-check the VoIP caller’s address.
Field Force Manager
New applications of cell phone technology can radically change the way a workforce operates. Wireless carriers are now offering tools that help managers keep track of workers in the field and aid information flow between headquarters and remote locations. One such product is Verizon’s Field Force Manager (FFM), which already has a Nextel counterpart. FFM is available on the Motorola V325, a cellular flip-phone. FFM’s Web-based application enables a business office to map the location of field workers and track their activities via Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. The tool allows mobile workers to clock in and off the job, and log in information via a numeric keypad. Dispatchers can run queries and reports and even send forms and time sheets to their fleets. The field workers can, in turn, submit time cards and job data back to the business office and receive detailed driving directions from their wireless devices. “Dispatchers at headquarters, working at computer terminals, can track their workers’ location in real time,” says Wolff. “A web portal provides a map of the United States by which dispatchers can plot the best routes to jobs.” The FFM is particularly useful for industries such as repair, security, real estate, transportation, and home health care. The system can reportedly save an hour per day per worker. FFM customers must have a Verizon calling plan. 20/20 offers the basic FFM service, including Location Based Services handset, at $25 per month, and an expanded service at $45 per month. The Motorola phone is $50 per two-year contract.
The PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) craze has spawned increasingly sophisticated wireless data devices. BlackBerries, Palm Treos, and other hand-held gadgets have become as ubiquitous as ordinary cell phones in the workplace and elsewhere. Now you can use PDA phones or “smart phones” to take calls, receive e-mail, browse the Web, and even run applications like Excel spreadsheets all on one hand-held device.
Almost all PDA phones are compatible with all computers. Sales people on the road can synchronize their PDA phones with their computers in real time to check e-mail, calendars and contacts, or launch a web browser. Google is particularly good at detecting a browser setting and adjusting to a small screen size, says Wolff. Some PDA phones have WiFi protocol, enabling the user to connect to wireless access points—for free. If out of range of a wireless hot spot, the user can still access the web through the Evolution Data Only (EVDO) network. That’s the high-speed, wireless data network developed by mobile phone service providers. Connection to the EVDO network requires the user to plug a wireless aircard into the device.
The data component of PDA phones is an add-on feature to a regular mobile phone contract. You can try out the data service for 30 days and then drop it if you find that you don’t need to be as connected as you thought. If you travel to areas without wireless hot spots, the $25 per month rate for 10 megabytes of usage is far more economical than a pay-as-you-go plan, says Wolff. “If you’re not able to find a wireless network, you could end up paying almost a cent per kilobyte for EVDO use,” says Wolff. “300 e-mails could cost you hundreds of dollars.”
Of course you need a data capable PDA phone in either case. In today’s carrier-dominated market, each carrier has their own lines of phones which are usually not interchangeable. “They’re all virtually the same phones in different colors and flavors,” says Wolff. Another factor to consider is whether the phone is compatible with your computer’s software. For example, Palms are supported by Microsoft and you must pay more to edit Windows Mobile 5.0 if your computer doesn’t support Microsoft.
Other features available on most PDA phones are streaming video and music and Bluetooth, a wireless, radio frequency technology. Bluetooth connects enabled devices to computers, PDAs, and cell phones. The hands-free accessory fits over the ear, enabling the user to keep his or her cell phone in a purse, pocket or nearby desk drawer while talking on the phone. The typical range for this device is about 30 feet. Naturally, these devices, which cost about $100, are popular for car use.
The PDA phones themselves range widely in cost, from under $200 to more than $500. Carriers typically subsidize the cost of these devices, just as they do regular cell phones, when you initiate or renew a service contract.
Many Ways to connect
In past issues, we have described the various Internet service options that businesses typically select. The synchronized, high-speed T1 line (which moves data at 1.5 megabits per second in both directions) is still the gold standard and the most reliable means of Internet connectivity. A 24-month contract for T1 is $299 per month for access plus a one-time installation fee of about $350 for customers in the Ann Arbor area. These high-speed lines are great for Web pages and e-mail, says Wolff. “But DSL is fine for businesses that don’t need such a robust connection.” A DSL customer needs a regular telephone company line on which 20/20 provides the DSL service. DSL costs $49.99 to $89.99 per month depending on the speed.
But wired Internet access is not necessarily available to businesses and residents of remote areas in the county. Shared, high-speed wireless Internet access is, of course, the solution for those folks. In most cases, the customer needs only an antenna and router that is connected to the computer. With bandwidth exceeding DSL or dial-up speeds, wireless can be optimized for Web, e-mail and VoIP. A 24-month business contract for wireless Internet access through 20/20 is $74.99 per month, with a one-time installation fee of $249.20/20 has installed antennas for wireless transmission on numerous rooftops throughout the area and on the Scio and Sylvan Township water towers. The company now has about 60 wireless business subscribers in the Ann Arbor area alone and hopes to soon increase that number to 200 for each tower. Once Wireless Washtenaw is operational that number will no doubt increase—while monthly services fees should decrease, says Wolff. “Since wireless operates on in an unlicensed spectrum we don’t have to pay the Federal Communications Commission to use the frequency,” he says. “But so far, it’s still costly to set up.”