Leslie Grevoy of DuPage County's Community Services group taps a cell modem to access databases while making live presentations to clients.

How Cellular Modems Enable Workers On the Go

Cellular wireless affords state and local governments broader coverage and secure transmission.

Cellular modems enable civic workers to access applications on the go.

As the cost of cellular broadband service drops to between $40 to $65 a month, depending on provider and bandwidth, state and local governments are turning to cell modems for mobile computing connectivity.

Cellular wireless affords state, county and city government broader coverage and more secure transmission than Wi-Fi. There’s no shortage of vendors selling cellular modems — Multi-Tech Systems, Novatel Wireless and Sierra Wireless are just a few.

Modem Mojo

DuPage County, Ill., has rolled out cell modems across multiple departments, including public works, building permits, IT, community services, and probation and court services.

Wendi Wagner, technical support supervisor in the county IT department in Wheaton, Ill., purchased Novatel Wireless Merlin S720 cards and Verizon UM150 USB cards for about a dozen users in three different departments in DuPage. The cards cost about $145 each with data service from Sprint and Verizon running about $65 per month, per user.

Using notebooks equipped with cellular modems, the county’s Community Services workers can now conduct offsite presentations, participate in training and stay in touch with the office while traveling to conferences. Remote access to the department’s databases allows staff to conduct more effective and informative presentations to various agencies, charities and service groups.

“In the past, we’d do PowerPoint presentations and take snapshots to show how we maneuver through our system,” says Leslie Grevoy, research and development operations coordinator for Community Services. “Today we can show participants what we do rather than try to explain it. It’s priceless.”

Building inspectors were among the county’s first cell modem users to access records while in the field. The IT department itself was another.

“A few of our network and server support people use cell wireless for 24-hour access,” says Wagner.

Cellular technology has come a long way since Wagner began looking at it some 10 years ago. Today, cell modem speeds are reported at 300 kilobits per second to 400Kbps for uploads and 300Kbps to 1 megabit per second for downloads.

DuPage County probation officers recently began using cellular modems to access offenders’ records, including case notes and case plans. “Offender information is now more available for all officers to read. We no longer have to wait for the officers to bring their contact books back to the office,” says Ryan Kennedy, supervisor of juvenile probation.

Shaping Up

“Better network coverage at speeds that are good enough and similar to a user’s experience with Wi-Fi is boosting the demand for cellular modems among mobile business users,” says Dan Shey, principal analyst of business mobility research for ABI Research in Denver.

At the same time, the form factor continues to evolve, giving users more choice. The PC Card modem is the traditional favorite among mobile users, though it’s now being outsold by USB modems, according to Shey.

More recently, organizations could choose cell modems embedded in notebooks. This option offers convenience, durability and improved performance, because the antennae are located in the lid of the notebook. “While external cellular modems have improved, they still stick out of the notebook and can break,” explains Shey.

Embedded technology was one of the deciding factors when the Alexandria, Va., Police Department purchased 329 Panasonic Toughbook notebooks that sport cell modems from Sierra Wireless. Jim Craige, sergeant of the tactical computer section of the Alexandria PD, estimates that the modem added between $500 and $900 to the cost of the unit.

“In our line of work, officer safety is a top concern. We can’t have officers thinking about how they’re handling their computers if they need to drop it and go,” says Craige.

Protecting 142,000 residents over 16 square miles, Alexandria Police are long-time users of mobile technology. However, Craige describes the evolution of data speeds from “slow as molasses” to the current state of getting speeds that meet or exceed the department’s needs. Using Verizon EVDO Rev A, officers currently get about 1.25Mbps download speed and up to 300Kbps upload speed.

Today, officers can send photographs between mobile devices, perform mobile mapping and transfer data for such things as license plate checking, traffic accident reports and electronic field reports between notebooks, as well as notebook to server. To enhance notebook performance, devices sit in the police car in a Panasonic Port Replicator docking station that’s outfitted with an antenna connection that allows the cellular signal to pass through the dock to an antenna on the roof of the car for superior coverage.

The latest cell modem technology not only saves the department time, but also increases efficiency. “It helps us catch the bad guys, find stolen automobiles and save lives. You can’t put a price tag on that,” Craige says.

The police department in Asheville, N.C., is one of five departments using cell modems. The city also taps the broadband connectivity option for building inspectors, the fire department, water department and city engineers, says Kevin Hymel, technical service manager.

The police department rolled out EVDO Rev A cell modems rather than upgrade an 800MHz communication system. The newest pieces of equipment in the police department are Panasonic Toughbooks with built-in cell modems from Sierra Wireless. Other devices use external PCMCIA modems.

Over a four-year period, Hymel estimates a ROI of $125,000. This figure is based on spending about $240,000 in cellular modem charges instead of about $350,000 to upgrade radio modems, as well as investing the initial capital that would have been used.

Boosting the Bottom Line

Lake-Sumter Emergency Medical Services in Lake County, Fla., is the sole ambulance provider for more than 250,000 residents in a predominantly rural area. With 250 employees and 40 vehicles in its fleet, Lake-Sumter EMS answers all fire and medical 911 calls — about 45,000 emergency calls annually.

An initial driver for cell modem deployment grew out of the organization’s need to reduce its billing cycle. “Switching to an electronic patient care reporting system from a manual process, we went from four days to within hours to bill for services,” says Jim Root, CIO at Lake-Sumter EMS.

Each of the 40 vehicles, including Advanced Life Support vehicles, are equipped with two Panasonic Toughbooks with built-in Novatel Wireless Merlin PC720 modems that communicate over Sprint’s EVDO Rev A network.

The emergency medical group also uses the wireless network to locate its vehicles for more efficient dispatch and to communicate more efficiently with medics in the field and at area hospitals.

State, county and city governments have always had employees whose jobs required mobility. Cellular modems are now making the jobs more doable and the workers more efficient.

Network Nuances

In the United States, carriers offering wireless data service compete over two broadband formats: Global System for Mobiles (GSM) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) Evolution Data (EVDO).

AT&T and T-Mobile both operate over the GSM network. AT&T complies with 3G defined under Universal Mobile Telephone System (UMTS) with HSDPA protocols while T-Mobile operates on GSM 2.5 using Enhanced Data for Global Evolution (EDGE) protocols. Sprint and Verizon support CDMA EVDO.

While the industry acronyms may be confusing, the good news for cellular digital service is that all service providers are in a horse race to improve upload and download speeds.

Cell Modem Market

Demand is growing for internal and external cell modems, which are forecast to post a compound annual growth rate of 53 percent from 2007 to 2012.

<p>Todd Winters</p>
Jul 07 2008