Businesses of all sizes are increasingly enabling their employees to stay in touch on the move. Not so long ago this would have been exclusively via dial-up over traditional voice networks.
The availability of data connections from the mobile operators (GPRS and 3G cellular access) and the proliferation of wireless hotspots (Wi-Fi access) have widened choice.
But depending on how these services are purchased and used, they can potentially drive up costs for companies.
The problem is that there are so many suppliers providing them. To select the most cost-effective connection in a location is tricky.
Employers cannot expect their mobile workforce to work this out when they are snatching a few minutes between meetings to catch up on their email.
Furthermore, even if the mobile worker was given enough information to make the right selection, furnishing their mobile device (still most likely to be a notebook PC) with the right cards and software is a management overhead many companies could do without.
The problem is at its worst for small businesses, many of which do not have the in-house skills to manage this.
Resellers can simplify the procurement process for their customers by bringing together the components and service agreements into an integrated package.
The easier suppliers make it for resellers to do this, the more successful they are likely to be at penetrating the SME market.
On the hardware side, things are already quite straightforward. These days any device based on Intel's Centrino chip set or AMD's Alchemy is already Wi-Fi-enabled.
Manufacturers are considering the inclusion of cellular access as standard, and resellers can easily include cellular data cards as an additional line item. The problem is not providing the hardware but getting connected.
Fortunately, service providers have taken note of this and are starting to work together to provide aggregated services and user-friendly interfaces. Such services provide a single point for billing, service and support, regardless of the network used.
Recent Quocirca research shows that 70 per cent of businesses would prefer to have a single supplier for cellular and Wi-Fi data access. There are a number of options emerging for purchasing aggregated services.
The mobile service providers are currently the biggest suppliers of airtime to mobile data workers. They have been slow to respond to the rise of Wi-Fi but are now starting to embrace it.
Vodafone has teamed up with BT to supply the BT Openzone Wi-Fi service, O2 has entered into agreements with a number of Wi-Fi operators and T-Mobile also has an offering in the UK, based on its own Mobile and Wi-Fi services.
They are also looking to include traditional fixed-line dial-up services in their agreements. This brings them into competition with dial-up aggregators such as Gric and iPass, which have made money by having wholesale agreements with local fixed-line suppliers around the world.
Their services have been widely used by those requiring access from hotels. As broadband becomes standard in hotels, they are expanding their offerings by incorporating Wi-Fi and mobile access into their agreements. Both vendors will sell their aggregated service agreements via resellers.
Another way these aggregated services will be delivered is by hardware manufacturers. One offering is Fujitsu Siemens's Connect2Air.
This is a notebook PC based on the Centrino chip set shipped with a Vodafone GPRS access card and service agreement, with an option to extend the agreement to include Wi-Fi access from The Cloud. Connect2Air is sold via VARs.
The trouble is that having an agreement with a single Wi-Fi supplier does not reflect the reality of how users are selecting mobile access services.
Most simply turn on their mobile device and look to see if any Wi-Fi networks are available. If they are lucky they may be able to get access for free.
If not, they will look to see if any available networks are covered by an existing service agreement. If not, they may get their credit card out or seek a GPRS or 3G connection.
Whatever service they end up using, a pre-agreed tariff for access will be cheaper than one paid for on the fly.
A free report, called Multi-Network Remote Access, is available from the Quocirca website here.
Bob Tarzey is service director at Quocirca.
To see the illustrations associated with this report please click here
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