Take a look at wireless communication

If you are wondering whether you need to purchase cellular telephones, pagers or two-way radios for your employees, the answer is yes and no. Advancements in technology allow you to carry as many-or as few-pieces of communication equipment as you need. The key, then, is for you to assess your communication needs, determine which communication equipment fulfills those needs and calculate what your budget allows.

Cellular and digital Two generations of wireless-communication equipment exist. The first generation, cellular (also called analog), operates on the 800 megahertz (MHz) spectrum. The second generation, digital (which includes personal communication service-PCS), operates on the 1900 MHz (or 1.9 gigahertz (GHz)) spectrum. Today, cellular and digital wireless services cover 96 percent of the geographical United States.

As evident from advertising blitzes, these developments opened the floodgates of competition and new wireless-communication carriers popped up all over the country. According to Rhonda Wickham, editorial director of Wireless Review, this competition was "like a technological gold rush." She adds, "The only real difference between cellular and digital technology is the point in time at which they were created. They both offer nearly equal services and contain the same, basic technology."

A communication audit If the terms "cellular" and "digital" are simply footnotes on the timeline of wireless-communication development, how do you determine what kind of service is best for your company? To answer that question, Drew Piriak, president of Wireless Applications Consulting (Beavercreek, Ore.), suggests that you perform a communications-needs audit.

Simply put, Piriak notes the three critical areas of a communication audit are goals, budget and determining how communication and information flows within your company. "Before you begin," says Piriak, "you need to determine who will perform this audit. If possible, it should be conducted internally. However, if you lack the time or resources to handle this internally, then an objective outsider would be your second choice-someone who has no vested interest in the outcome of your decision."

We all know how many salespeople (or worse, salespeople disguised as consultants) are out there vying for your wireless-communication business. If you decide to hire an outsider as your communications consultant, screen their credentials and affiliations carefully. You do not want to hire a consultant employed by a wireless-communication provider. You require objectivity to streamline your firm's communications-not a sales pitch designed to help a provider meet his or her monthly sales quota.

Goals At the current rate of development, the new equipment of today is destined to be obsolete in less than 3 years, so you must ask yourself how this equipment improves your operation now. For example, landscape-contracting companies cut their service-response time to customer-service calls in half when crew leaders have wireless communication units. The units allow customers to contact your managers assigned to their property. Therefore, customers don't have to call your office and leave messages with your receptionist. Likewise, your managers, while in the field, can contact customers during the course of the day as needs arise. In addition, managers can reach crewmembers (and vice versa) to ascertain if they are on pace to finish their daily work. Similarly, if a crewmember needs extra fuel for equipment or experiences a mechanical problem, he or she can directly contact management. This prevents work stoppage because the manager can take the fuel or replacement equipment to the crew.

Your budget The following items represent wireless-communication systems and how they affect your budget:

* Cellular and digital. When you invite bids from these providers, be aware of monthly airtime charges. In most cases, a plan that charges a flat, monthly fee for unlimited use is the best choice. Some providers charge a one-time activation fee when you purchase one of their units. However, special offers exist that waive these charges and discount the price of the phone if you buy a contract for a year or two. These offers typically are fine, but you must be sure you can honor the length of the contract. If you choose a plan that offers limited airtime, you must realize that exceeding that limit is expensive. Gather at least three bids from providers in your area and determine which one best meets your needs.

* Two-way radio-plus-digital. Relatively new to the market, these hand-held units combine three of the most popular wireless-communication options: phone, pager and two-way radio. As with cellular and digital phones, monthly charges, airtime fees and, in most cases, installation fees apply. The obvious advantage of these units for grounds-maintenance and golf-course personnel is the convenience of the combined services they provide. Be aware, however, that you pay for this convenience.

* Pagers. Contrary to popular belief, pagers remain a viable wireless-communication system. Until recently, pagers have offered one-way communication. Today, however, two-way pagers exist. A bit larger than one-way units, the two-way devices have a keypad on which you type and send alphanumeric messages. Less expensive than cellular or digital phones, pagers are an option for lower management or crewmembers who don't require instant telephone or two-way radio contact with you or your customers.

* Two-way radios. Many landscape companies have the citizen-band-(CB)-style two-way radios installed in their truck fleets. Many such companies, as well as golf-course grounds crews, also use hand-held units. These units typically operate on a "trunking" system that provides your fleet with one private channel with a range of 20 to 80 square miles. As with all wireless-communication units, they typically require an antenna and transceiver to send and receive signals.

Billing Billing is an issue you must be clear about from the beginning of any contract you sign. Look for "true-second" billing methods that charge you for the exact amount of time you spend on a unit. Avoid plans that round up your time to the next minute.

System providers conduct the billing process and offer various monthly plans. Some plans offer a flat, monthly fee with unlimited use, while others offer less-expensive monthly fees with limited use. Determine your needs before you choose.

The flow of information The final determinant in the communication audit is the most time-consuming. "You must ask who, what, where, when, why and how," says Piriak. "You must ask who is communicating with whom and why. What do the people who will be using this technology think and feel about its impact upon them? How is our communication routed-inter- or intra-departmentally? How many units do I need? Do my employees need quick access to management?"

In landscape-contracting firms, for example, little reason exists why a crew leader must call the office secretary to reach a field supervisor. The crew leader's and supervisor's lines of communication streamline when both parties have wireless-communication units.

Hanging up One final note is that most wireless-communication contracts require a credit and reference check. If you provide phones to your staff, it is a good idea to have long-distance and 1-900 services blocked. Unless special circumstances dictate, it is not necessary for any of your managers or crew members to place those types of calls. Most providers offer itemized billing that indicates which of your phones made specific calls. This makes tracing improper calls easy. If left unchecked, however, your long-distance and 1-900 service calls could add up, damage your credit rating and lead to the cancellation of your wireless service.

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