Braving the Wilds with Wireless Notebooks

IT managers say the advent of notebooks with built-in wireless WANs can speed access to critical data, opening a number of new possibilities.

NEW YORK—Notebooks equipped with wireless wide area networking are poised to make it easier for a slew of applications, from skiers plotting their next runs at a ski center in Whistler, British Columbia, to helping doctors manage patient care.

Those improvements will come from near-ubiquitous access to critical data provided by the first notebooks to embed WWAN hardware.

WWANs have been around for years, but using them has been generally inconvenient, due to relatively slow data ranges, high service costs and awkward hardware.

The advent of faster networks and, now, notebooks with internal WWAN hardware—Dell unveiled its WWAN-capable Latitudes, here, on March 28—improves the ease and speed with which data can be accessed or shared, paving the way for broader adoption, two senior IT managers said.

For one, "Its less clumsy," said Mark Sedgwick, manager of IT for Whistler Blackcomb Properties, in Whistler, British Columbia.

"Its also a big step forward because its [providing network] infrastructure that we dont have to put in."

One critical application WWAN notebooks can fill for Whistler Blackcomb is updating trail conditions more quickly, Sedgwick said.

Each of its Snow Cats onboard notebooks could be upgraded with one of Dells WWAN-equipped notebooks and used to send in trail data continuously, speeding up the dissemination of the information both online and in areas such as lodges.

Health care centers are another area in which WWAN notebooks can help make things easier.

"Its going to be very handy to have [WWAN] included in notebooks," said Michael Haga, regional network medical director for Care Level Management, a Woodland Hills, Calif., home health care provider.

The company now uses PC Card-equipped Dell machines for some WWAN access but aims to switch to integrated WWAN systems. Providing them to physicians and health care field workers would make for easier access to patient records.

"We think this will reduce our need for tech support in the field," Haga said.

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about notebook makers wide-area wireless plans.

The quick, easy access to data offered by WWANs can become a strategic advantage for corporations field workers and executives, said Alex Gruzen, senior vice president of Dells Product Group, in Austin, Texas.

"Were getting the sense that there are quite a few customers that are interested in mobile broadband" or WWAN, Gruzen said, speaking to a small group of reporters and analysts at a meeting in New York City.

Dell even plans to equip its own sales force with the machines to allow them to write up sales and track orders while with clients, he said.

To be sure, the days when deskbound workers will use WWAN to check e-mail and surf the Web may never arrive, particularly because monthly service fees are still considered to be high.

However, hardware integration is expected to send WWAN notebook shipments skyrocketing from a few hundred thousand units—a comparative zero—in 2005 to as high as 20 million units by 2010, according to a recent report by EndPoint Technologies Associates, in Wayland, Mass.

"WWANs give the user something unobtainable via 802.11: freedom," Roger Kay, president of EndPoint, wrote in the report.

"Once a customer has a data plan in place, he or she can connect anywhere in the coverage area, which will expand for [WWAN] 3G networks in the United States throughout the forecast period," Kay wrote.

"Although 3G networks currently cover about half the U.S. population, and this coverage is growing slowly but steadily, utilization is still low. Carriers will only expand network coverage aggressively when utilization rates pick up, which should occur toward the back half of the forecast period."

Indeed, most notebook makers offer at least one WWAN-hardware-equipped notebook at the moment.

Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Dell now each have two. HP and Lenovo now ship Verizon Wirelesss EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) hardware in their business notebooks. The companies also have deals to include Cingular BroadbandConnect service hardware.

Dells new Latitude D620 and D820 models offer both WWAN services.

Dells 4.4-pound Latitude D620, built around a 14.1-inch widescreen, starts at $1,149. Its 5.6-pound Latitude D820 starts at $1,289 and offers a 15.4-inch wide-screen.

Dell will charge $179 and $225, respectively, to add Verizon EvDO and Cingular BroadbandConnect service hardware, company officials said.

HPs HP Compaq Notebook nc6140 and nc6320 are its latest to offer WWAN hardware built-in.

An nc6140 model configured with a Verizons EvDO module starts at $1,399, while an nc6320 with the hardware was $1,499, according to HPs Small and Medium Business Web site. An identical nc6320 model without EvDO costs $100 less, the site shows.

"I think that, as weve seen in other technology areas, as the networks themselves improve in terms of coverage and overall performance…and we start to see declines in monthly service prices—these are things that arent unreasonable to expect—theyll all have impact in terms of driving [WWAN] technology adoption," said Matt Wagner, senior manager of product marketing, in HPs notebook group in Houston, Texas.

WWAN service pricing varies. But both Cingular and Verizon offer $59.99-per-month unlimited access plans for existing customers and $79.99-per-month, unlimited access for non-customers.

Verizon also provides day-to-day service for $15 per 24 hours of access.

Going forward, the carriers may face pressure to lower their prices, either from competitors or their business customers, analysts such as Kay have said.

"To stimulate this market, service pricing should be brought down as soon as is practically possible," Kay wrote in his report.

Also, "Carriers should consider creating pay-as-you-go plans to reach into lower demographics."

Notebook makers should also take note of trends WWANs might inspire and provide a larger selection of smaller, lighter machines with relatively long battery life, Kay wrote.

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