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Imagine running an entire retail store location over a 3G wireless network--including transferring inventory updates, point-of-sale data, and payroll information. Follett Corp., which operates 900 college campus bookstores across the United States, has proved it's not only possible, but it has been a reliable stopgap for the few months it takes Follett to hardwire a new bookstore.
Follett's store locations can vary widely: Some are storefronts on a city street; others take up a floor inside a student union building. After signing a lease for a new store, it can take two to three months for Follett to configure a conventional frame relay network between the store and the company's home office. 3G, in some locations, is the remedy. "It's allowed us to have any one of 33 applications functional on day one," says Roger Laframboise, Follett's director of network services.
Yet the approach works only with some new stores, given the inconsistency of cellular service providers' coverage. Stores in metropolitan areas are the best candidates. 3G tests in stores away from big cities haven't been as successful--resulting in lost connections in the middle of cash-register ring-ups, for example--for the same reason people have spotty cell service in certain regions: fewer cell towers.
"In a test store right outside of Chicago, the performance was fantastic," says Bob Richard, manager of planning and administration in Follett's IT group. "When it's working right, it's as fast as a traditional relay." In fact, in an ongoing experiment, two stores have been running entirely on a 3G network for more than a year, supporting such tasks as staff scheduling, inventory management, and cash and credit card transactions. Follett also prioritizes traffic across a 3G network based on its importance--revenue-generating transactions, for example, take precedence over inventory management.
Laframboise advises companies to have contracts with several 3G carriers before trying this kind of effort, since carrier coverage varies at different locations. Any number of factors--location of wireless towers, the technology carriers use, building construction materials, and even typical weather patterns--can affect coverage and signal strength. IT teams should plan to do an intensive site survey and assessment to pick the right carrier, including assessing whether 3G is even an option.
While wireless has proved itself for quick retail launches, Laframboise says it has a long way to go before he'd use it as the permanent network for critical enterprise apps. There's a jumble of standards in the United States alone--including GSM and CDMA, with EV-DO, HSPA, WiMax, and, soon LTE--and neither CDMA nor EV-DO mesh with European and Asian standards. That suggests caution before building a long-term enterprise apps platform on wireless broadband.