Remoting It!

Take your office with you using the latest technology tools. Conduct business as usual wherever you go, and return to your office with a clean desk. What a great feeling!

You have to make the trip, but you dread the work that piles up while you’re gone–e-mail, voice mail, faxes–not to mention people who must see you on your first day back.

With a little planning, and some help along the way, there’s very little you can’t do on the road that you’d do sitting at your office desk. Today, we have pagers, wireless phones, laptops, PDAs (personal digital assistants), and a host of other electronic marvels to help us stay in touch, whether we’re at a branch office, a home office, or on the road–most anywhere in the world.

The big benefit, of course, is the ability to conduct business in real time. Internet access is getting easier. Airports, airlines, travel agencies, and hotels offer many new services. Other travel aids are in the works. Let’s take a look.

The new world of wireless

riTwo-way radio is hardly new, having been developed and first used during World War I. For many years, its use was restricted to planes, ships, military, police, and fire departments. It wasn’t until cellular phone service was established 20 years ago that individuals had access to wireless telephones. Today, we have PCS (personal communications service) wireless phone systems that compete with cellular.

Until recently, all cellular phone service used old-fashioned analog technology. When PCS was born–using the newer digital technology–it offered several benefits, including better sound quality and a higher level of security. Cellular carriers are slowly changing their systems to digital but now offer phones that switch automatically back and forth between analog and cellular, so they can be used anywhere.

PCS systems are not without problems. Because they operate on much lower power than cellular, many more antennas are required. While not a problem in most cities and suburbs, service can be poor or nonexistent in rural areas. The latest problem in some areas is the inability to get a line during peak use periods, due to the capacity of the system.

For travelers who want more than just a wireless phone, there’s carrier Nextel, offering a digital phone, voice mail, speaker phone, caller ID, and a text and numeric pager–all in one handheld device. If you’re not blown away by all that, Nextel can also provide old-fashioned two-way radio service, a la taxicabs, allowing you to broadcast to any number of your own people, all at once. Nextel now offers, thanks to satellites, service to 65 countries, using a single phone number.

Getting information and making reservations

Making travel arrangements while you’re sitting in your office is fairly easy, but when you’re on the road and need to make changes, it can get a bit dicey. Things don’t always go as planned, especially with the airlines! With airlines, hotels, and car rental agencies encouraging you to use the Internet, and with the benefits this brings, just about everyone would like to continue using the Web while traveling. That’s now possible through a wireless connection.

Save time and headaches by working with a travel agency that’s online 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One contact and you can make all your changes. Some agencies, like many hotels, have click-to-talk options or a fast-track 800 number, if you need to talk to a live person.

Or go to www.hotelguide.com, which offers complete information for hotels and destinations around the world. You can view maps, service guides, and even comments from recent hotel and resort guests.

Travel agents now charge a fee for every paper ticket they write. To avoid this charge, book reservations directly, either by phone or the Internet. I suggest using the Internet even if you continue to work with a regular travel agent because:

1. You can access the same up-to-the-minute information available to travel agents.

2. Even if you can’t plan travel several weeks in advance, you can still find economical fares, especially if you can be flexible about departure and arrival times.

3. The Internet is your best single source of travel information.

Expect to spend some time getting acquainted with the travel information on the Internet. With so much information available, searching can be both frustrating and time-consuming at first.

To make reservations and purchase tickets on-line, you have two options:

1. Contact each airline, hotel and car rental company separately, or;

2. Work with an online travel agency, such as Travelocity, Expedia, or Biztravel, among others. The benefit of dealing with each provider separately is that you can download direct-access software, saving you time in the future. Some airlines reward you with extra frequent flyer miles for using their Web services.

The major benefit of using an online travel agency is the same as with a conventional travel agent–they handle everything. You can view every flight to your destination, or simply shop for the lowest price. You can do all this while traveling, using a wireless phone, laptop, or PDA. Thanks to wireless connections, the traveling PC, in whatever configuration, can now communicate with just about anyone, anywhere in the world.

E-mail, anytime, anywhere

Access to the Internet while traveling has been a hit-or-miss proposition, but things are looking up. Unless you carried a coupler to attach to a telephone handset, or were lucky enough to find an airport clubroom that was wired, getting your e-mail on the road was a real chore.

Today’s business travelers are demanding–and getting–much better Internet access, especially in hotel guest rooms, where it’s most needed. Many hotels have had room jacks for some time, but service was slow and sometimes unreliable. Now many hotels are installing high-speed systems in every meeting and guest room.

Wyndham hotels, for example, are now installing such systems in every room in more than 200 properties. Marriott has some properties wired, and Radisson is now installing high-speed systems in all their company-owned properties. Expect others to follow. You’ll want to check before making reservations, then ask specifically for a room that’s wired.

Thanks to wireless technology, you can not only send and receive e-mail from just about anywhere in the world, but you can also access corporate data in real-time, just as if you were sitting at your desk. Small amounts of data can be transmitted inexpensively via an alphanumeric pager. Two-way pagers are now popular, allowing not only a confirmation that your message was received, but providing the capability of immediate message return. Some paging carriers offer add-ons for handheld computers like the Palm Pilot, greatly increasing the pager’s capacity.

Wireless modems can be attached to, and in some cases, are built into, laptops, PDAs, and wireless phones. While used primarily to send and receive e-mail today, this equipment will be able to handle larger amounts of data as storage capacity increases. At press time, Nextel was about to introduce its own data network, which should shake up the industry and help reduce prices.

A whole range of devices and software is coming to market to aid in mobile data transfer. PDAs with integrated wireless data capabilities and add-on cards for existing devices are now available. Motorola has developed a line of two-way pagers and cards that work with Palm Pilots and similar devices. In the future, look for more software to be built into PDAs, mobile phones, notebooks, and desktops to simplify data transfer.

Virtual private networks

If your organization has its own intranet, you can send and receive unlimited data while traveling, using any of the devices just mentioned.

Most large corporations use their own dedicated remote access servers, such as those provided by Perle Systems. In other words, they are their own Internet service provider (ISP). A less expensive alternative is the Virtual Private Network (VPN), which uses public ISPs as the transport backbone for communication and data transfer between headquarters and mobile employees. Companies such as CheckPoint Software Technologies offer a wide variety of VPN services, which are now affordable to smaller companies. Major benefits of these systems are speed and security.

Getting more done

We’re now witnessing a major shift in how people communicate when traveling. Today they want a car phone while driving. They want a pocket phone at the airport–forget the pay phones. On the airplane, they want a phone in the seatback in front of them. Then, they’re back to the pocket phone upon arrival. Salespeople want to transmit orders as soon as they receive them. They want constant updates on pricing and product availability. Executives want to access corporate data banks. The list in endless.

Setting up a videoconference while traveling is easier now that most hotels offer this service. Today’s equipment is quite portable, so you can set up a conference from just about any room in the hotel, including guest rooms or small meeting rooms. Costs have dropped substantially, especially if you’re using two or more hotels in the same chain. Many companies are saving substantially by using videoconferencing for training.

It’s all about getting more done while on the road. Taking your office with you is now a reality. Makes you wonder if you really need that desk and chair back in your office!

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