The Wireless SMB — It Takes a Plan

By Lauren Simonds
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Being able to work wirelessly isn't merely cool; it's incredibly convenient. Going wireless offers the freedom of mobility with anywhere, anytime access to your customers, clients and business data. It means carrying one small, pocket-sized device instead of juggling a heavy laptop and assorted peripherals.

Still, like any technology, the only reason to invest part of your business budget is if it actually helps you improve your business. We spoke with Bob Crawford — the director of SMB marketing at Sprint — to get his take on what SMB owners need to think about before taking the wireless plunge.

"You'll eventually need to talk to a qualified wireless service provider," says Crawford. "But first you really need to sit down and think about your business and your objectives."

• What Do You Want to Accomplish by Going Wireless?
Consider whether having wireless mobility will improve your business. Do you need access to your data while you're out of the office? If you have a sales force out on the road, having the capability to connect to the company database can increase efficiency and drive more sales.

• Understand Network Coverage
How big of a coverage area do you need — regional or national? Also, keep your geography in mind as that can impact your choice of a service provider and services. Do you work in an urban or rural area? Do you want voice or data services — or both? Think about and clearly articulate: this is what I need to do to run my business, and oh by the way, I'm in Iowa.

• Data Applications
When comparing wireless networks, be sure to look at the speed. Different carriers offer different technologies, and they all have their pros and cons. Ask the service provider what speed you need in order to run your data applications effectively. A good service provider works with its partners to develop applications the customer needs or sells third-party applications that they carry.

• The Future State of Digital Technology
Wireless technology speeds are constantly evolving — ask the service provider what its plans are for increasing network speed — and will it be backward compatible? Basically, you want to make sure that if you buy something today, will you be able to use it in two years. Every service provider should have an answer to that question.

• Choosing Devices
The kind of business you're in determines what features you'll need. There are lots of converged devices — combination phones and PDAs, etc. Typically, small business owners and executives or sales groups use them — mainly because they're more productive than laptops.

Your company might need a variety of devices with different features such as phone-only, combination phone and walkie-talkie or phone and PDA. Most companies buy a mix. Be sure to consider how much processing power you or your employees need.

The Treo 600 from PalmOne
PalmOne's Treo 600 — the Swiss Army knife of handhelds.
• Styles and Displays
By style, I mean a flip phone versus the candy bar or stick style. Think about usability — some people don't want flip phones because they need one-handed access. As for displays, you'll find that most phones have color screens.

• Security
Security is becoming more important — especially if you're sending data over the wireless network. Think about what level of security you need, and discuss it with your provider.

• Group Purchasing
A good way to keep costs down, group rates take effect when you buy in larger numbers — usually at the five or ten unit mark. Typically, you'll see incremental pricing — the more devices you buy, the larger the discount.

• Pooling Minutes
Here's another good way to keep a lid on expenses. Say you have five employees, five handsets and five service plans. One or two employees are heavy users, but three don't use many of their minutes at all. Pool the minutes together, and you don't have to worry about individual overages or unused minutes.

Shameless Plug: Treo 600
The Treo 600 from PalmOne is an example of what it calls an "all-in-one communications and productivity tool." The combination phone and digital camera also provides real-time access to e-mail, text messaging, the Internet, contact lists and calendar functions. The four major wireless carriers — AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and Cingular support the Treo 600.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com

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This article was originally published on September 10, 2004
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