Non-profits don't often push the envelope with technology: They typically can't afford to. But the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the city's food bank, was an early adopter of Sprint 4G, the cellular company's WiMAX broadband wireless service.
Sprint is rolling out the service to major centers across the U.S. in partnership with Clearwire, with which it merged its 4G operations in 2008. The two companies use 802.16e mobile WiMAX technology in the licensed 2.5 MHz band. They were in 27 markets as of late February, including New York, Houston, Boston and Washington, D.C.
The Food Depository was an early customer in Chicago a year ago. It has now equipped 14 of its laptop-toting mobile workers with Sprint 4G cards, which deliver average download speeds of between 3 and 4 megabits per second (Mbps), according to third-party reports.
The Chicago food bank feeds about 90,000 people a week through a variety of partner agencies, including churches and soup kitchens. Last year, it donated over 56 million pounds of food, either purchased using donated or government funds or donated by food industry companies or organizations that run food drives.
One of its related programs is a push to sign up disadvantaged citizens for a state-funded food stamp program. The program often doesn't spend its budget because not enough eligible recipients know about it or know how to apply, says Muhammad Khan, the Depository's director of IT.
So food stamp outreach coordinators from the Depository travel to community centers and aid agencies around Cook County and sign people up on the spot. They take clients' personal details, punch them into a Web-based application on the laptops, print out a copy of the last page for a signature and fax it back to head office.
"We could have done it with 3G, we were doing it with 3G," Khan says. "But the availability of the 4G network and the speed of the connection definitely helps the process. The faster the connection speed, the more people the coordinators can get through in the few hours they spend at each agency. So 4G helps."
The Depository is not exactly a business but it's run like one, and it's typical of a type of customer Sprint is eager to introduce to WiMAX 4G.
"We focus a lot [in marketing] on the life-changing capabilities [of 4G]," says Todd Rowley, Sprint's vice president for 4G. "But this is also just a new and greatly improved way to connect while you're mobile -- and we're not charging a premium for it."
The depository pays $59 a month per user, and the air cards were free as part of an early-adopter promotion. Data over the 4G network is all-you-can-eat. Where 4G isn't available -- and it's pretty much available across the Depository's territory -- connections go over Sprint's 3G network, on which there is a cap. Sprint claims its 4G/3G offer is priced similarly to 3G-only data offers from competitors.
"Our strategy is, 'Let's get this into the hands of as many customers as possible -- and let them see the benefits of it for themselves,'" Rowley says.
Sprint is clearly getting most traction with businesses -- despite its early strategy of mainly targeting consumers. "Our early adopters have mostly come out of the business market," says Rowley. "In fact, the majority of Sprint 4G customers today are from the business sector."
The company does hope to broaden the thrust to include consumers eventually. It believes new types of devices, such as the recently introduced OverDrive, a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot that backhauls traffic over the Sprint 4G network, will help it do that.
In the meantime, while Sprint is understandably anxious to reach a 'mass' market of businesses that can benefit in a general way from improved mobile data connection speeds, it is inevitably finding among early adopters many customers for whom, as Rowley puts it, 4G "changes how [they] will be able to do business."
Any online mobile application that relies for adequate performance on low latency and jitter -- video and voice in particular -- gets a new lease on life with 4G. "It really does away with the whole trade-off between mobility and [network] performance," he says.
IP Video Without Compromise
IP-based video conferencing is one obvious example of an application that becomes feasible with 4G where it was fatally compromised at 3G speeds. It's not clear how many companies actually want or need to set up video conferences with mobile participants or how frequently, but 4G does make it possible.
Police departments in Portland, Oregon and at least one other Sprint 4G market have adopted the service so they can get better results with mobile video surveillance cameras.
They set up the cameras at different locations each day, training them on known trouble spots. The live video transmitted over the WiMAX network to squad cars is "high resolution," Rowley says. This probably doesn't mean literally HD, but it's much improved video quality that allows police to see more clearly what's going on.
The result, Rowley claims, is that they're making 50 to 100 more arrests a month because they have decisive video evidence on which to base charges.
Construction companies are using Sprint 4G to quickly connect computers at mobile worksite offices. The high speed of the connection also enables new applications such as using live video from the site to illustrate problem situations to remote experts.
Broadcasters are replacing mobile units that cost $500,000 to $600,000 with camera crews in cars equipped with handheld cameras and Sprint 4G connections to enable more nimble on-the-spot live news coverage. "They can shoot in locations that in the past they could not get into without lots of wires," Rowley says. "The broadcast industry loves this."
Finally, one municipal public transit company -- Sprint hasn't announced which yet -- is planning to use 4G to enable a trifecta of applications on its buses.
WiMAX will allow the company to offer Wi-Fi hotspot services to passengers -- either for a fee or for free as an inducement to use the transit system. It will allow it to transmit video from security surveillance cameras on the buses. In the past, in emergency situations, dispatchers could only communicate with drivers by radio. And it will use Sprint 4G to update rich-media content on advertising supported digital signs on the buses.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Food Depository is finding additional ways to take advantage of the service, equipping agency-relations employees with 4G so they can interact easily with an online customer relationship management (CRM) application, and letting all their 4G-equipped mobile employees get easier, quicker access to e-mail. Next up: making the organization's intranet available to mobile users.
Not every organization has an application that will be transformed by WiMAX, but if Sprint can keep prices low and get enough 3G users like the Depository hooked on the general improvements with 4G, maybe it can corner the market before the anticipated onslaught of competitors offering mobile broadband service using LTE.