Local Businesses Cut the (Phone) Cord

Jason Akagi wears an early prototype of NovaSol's functional near-infrared imaging apparatus that detects brain activity as colleagues Hunter Downs and Jim Cummings look on. In the process of moving into new offices, the company switched to all wireless phones, estimating it saved $50,000 to $60,000 on installing a land-line network in the new location.

Increased productivity and cost savings on infrastructure motivate firms to go wireless

In a downtown cafe, loan officer Wendy Pang opens her laptop, inputs a client's data, accesses her company's network, and in minutes has a loan pre-approval letter sanctioned by Fannie Mae and bearing Pang's digitized signature.

"Best of all? No paper," Pang says. "I hate paper."

Fortunately for Pang, she works for Hawaii HomeLoans , one of a select few local companies where such ancient concepts as paper, pen and land-phone lines are going the way of the dodo bird.

The move to wireless is well under way in homes, where growing numbers of people are severing land lines in favor of cell phones and wireless Internet access.

The business realm has been slower to catch on, but some companies that rely on mobility are following suit, finding enhanced productivity and even cost savings.

For example, each Hawaii HomeLoans loan officer takes to the field armed with laptops equipped with Sprint PCS "air cards." This allows them to access the Fannie Mae database to crunch a loan pre-approval from virtually anywhere, a key advantage in Hawaii's fast-moving real estate market.

"These days you have to be so quick on the uptake," Pang says as an instant message alert from her boss flashes on the screen. "People just don't want to wait. They want to be able to put in an offer (on a house) immediately and need to be pre-qualified for that," Pang says.

The company's Merchant Street headquarters offers a vision of the wireless future. There are no land-line phones or PCs cluttering desks. Every staffer is part of a Sprint cellular phone plan that features unlimited calls between plan participants.

The office also is rigged for Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, which allows computer access to the corporate network and Internet without the usual umbilical cords. Only the fax machine is tethered to a cord.

Executive Vice President Leonard Loventhal says its difficult to quantify wireless's impact on productivity, but the gains are obvious.

"People may not realize it, but they're working harder because they're always connected," he says. "They're working the phones or on their laptop while moving around."

Traditional phones are an endangered species at NovaSol, too. The company, which has offices in Honolulu and three mainland cities, develops and operates advanced imaging products for clients such as the Department of Defense.

It is in the midst of moving its office from one downtown site to another and has taken the opportunity to go wireless, eschewing land lines and putting its employees on a Verizon Wireless shared-minutes calling plan.

Several price points came into play, says NovaSol's engineering director Jim Cummings. NovaSol's land-line provider, which he declined to divulge, requires the use of a $400 phone and installing new lines or moving old ones cost $150 a pop, a concern for the growing company. The company's long-distance bill often gave Cummings a jolt.

"It adds up. And for what? You can't save numbers in those phones and you can walk all of five feet away while talking," says Cummings.

The company reckons it has saved $50,000 to $60,000 that would have been spent on installing a land-line network in the new location.

"That's gone back into our R&D instead," says CEO Dr. Jim Karins. "Most importantly, nobody has been out of communication during the move. That's been crucial."

Some of the data NovaSol provides is used in time-sensitive military applications, such as helping military forces zero in on targets. Karins says technicians are constantly out in the field assessing their networks and need to communicate quickly with a NovaSol office or with government clients on the mainland if problems arise.

"We have a bunch of scientists that need answers right away," Cummings says. "If you don't get a message until the next day on your office voice mail, you've lost a day."

A Wi-Fi system also is in the works at NovaSol, whose scientists need to be able to take their laptops to and from their desks and the lab.

Still, the business world is unlikely to see a move en masse toward wireless, says Ken Hyers, senior wireless analyst with tech market researchers In-Stat/MDR . He says the cost comparison between cell phones and land lines is "probably even" and many companies won't sacrifice the clearer reception and overall greater dependability of traditional phone networks.

"You'll see a stratified response in which the vast majority of companies stick with land lines but smaller, more mobile firms opt to go wireless," he says. "But those smaller firms are likely to see more potential productivity growth as a result."

Of course, hyper-connectivity has its drawbacks.

"It means your boss can reach you at any given time," says NovaSol's Cummings. "Fortunately there's caller ID."

By Dan Martin, Photo by Dennis Oda
The Honolulu Starbulletin

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