Nortel Networks, the Canadian communications hardware vendor, is telling its employees to go mobile. And they mean almost everyone, not just the road warriors.

“While only 10 per cent of our workforce travels frequently, 95 per cent of our employees work away from their desks,” says Ian McKeown, chief information officer at Nortel Networks Europe. “We estimate that desk occupancy peaks at 40 per cent in any given moment, and many employees spend just a third of their time at their desks.”

That is why Nortel, which has 30,000 employees, is investing millions of dollars to roll out ubiquitous wireless local area network (Lan) coverage across its 250 offices worldwide. The company says in-office mobility is key to greater productivity as well as significant cost savings.

“Some of our employees are gaining an extra 45 minutes per week thanks to wireless Lan,” adds Mr McKeown. Nortel estimates that overall productivity gains from the current in-office W-Lab deployment are $3.1m per annum, yielding a one-year payback on the investment. So far, over 5,000 Nortel employees use W-Lan and they work it hard: each month they generate six terabytes of wireless data traffic.

Nortel’s first step was to put W-Lan access points in conference rooms and other common areas. This alone yielded $2.6m in productivity gains. For instance, an internal study revealed that Nortel employees were wasting an average of 30 minutes looking for a network cable connection each time they moved to another company location. W-Lan eliminates this costly hide-and-seek.

Another benefit of W-Lan is that it eliminates the need for network access cable drops at each desk. In two new Nortel facilities in Sydney and Beijing, a combination of W-Lan and internet protocol telephony is reducing the average four Ethernet cables per work point to just one, a 60 per cent reduction in cabling costs. W-Lan also makes moving or adding work stations effortless and Nortel says it is saving nearly $1m per annum in costs related to these changes. Encouraged by the savings, Nortel aims to make some offices wire-free as early as 2007.

Even bigger benefits are emerging as voice over internet protocol (VoIP) is tied into W-Lans. Nortel is replacing many desktop phones with so-called nomadic IP phones that use W-Lan for in-building mobility. Besides giving “always at your desk” availability, many of the calls that would have been made from a mobile phone instead go over the VoIP network. Mr McKeown says that VoIP use by mobile workers is saving Nortel about $18m each year.

But enabling nomadic VoIP requires wall-to-wall W-Lan coverage with seamless roaming across access points, different wireless standards and IP subnets. “Security is absolutely key,” adds Mr McKeown. Also important is building a high-capacity network. “We have engineered 12 users to each access point in order to guarantee the call quality,” says Mr McKeown.

But he believes that in-office mobility can also transform Nortel’s business. “A couple of our new office buildings give a preview of how in-building mobility can change the way people work,” says Mr McKeown. “By taking a ground-up approach to mobility, we created a flexible workspace and provided all employees with mobility-enabling technologies like laptops, wireless Lan and VoIP. We’ve found that this promotes both formal and ad hoc collaboration. Employees convene for as long as necessary, whether that’s a few minutes or even days.”

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