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updated 9/15/2004 8:54:13 PM ET 2004-09-16T00:54:13

There's good news for corporate road warriors who are fed up with dial-up, have had it with hotspots and are sick of cyber cafés. New high-speed cellular services are allowing mobile workers to get online wirelessly anytime, anywhere.

Over the last few years, wireless phone vendors have spent billions upgrading their networks to handle greater amounts of traffic, including data from computers. Now companies like Houston-based financial consulting firm John M. Floyd & Associates are reaping the benefits, equipping their workers with modems that allow them to get online anywhere they can get a cellular signal. "It's one of the best things that I've done," says Chief Operating Officer Cher Floyd. "I have never received so many excellent e-mails and stories from employees."

The firm began its foray into cellular technology last fall. Its staff is highly mobile, with consultants and sales associates traveling the country to visit customers and trade shows. Equipping their notebook computers with cellular access cards could not only make their lives easier, but cut costs and increase efficiency. After comparing the various networks available, Floyd decided to go with the EDGE network from AT&T Wireless, which is in the process of being acquired by Cingular Wireless. "AT&T was much faster than any of the other services," she says.

The EDGE network -- short for Enhanced Data for Global Evolution -- offers users download speeds of around 100-130 kilobits per second, slower than a broadband connection, but still several times faster than dial-up. Users plug a small network card into their notebook computer and it dials into the cellular network, making a connection anywhere a user can get a signal. And since AT&T Wireless' network reaches across the country, covering more than 7,500 cities, users can get online pretty much anywhere, not just where they can find a phone jack or a Wi-Fi hotspot.

AT&T Wireless isn't the only mobile vendor with a data plan. Similar services are available from Sprint; Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications and Vodafone Group; Cingular, a joint venture between SBC Communications and Bell South; and T-Mobile USA, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom.

Mobile vendors are increasingly hungry to sell data services to businesses, according to Meta Group analyst David Willis. "The carriers are struggling with how to justify the massive investments they've made, when all they've done so far is sell ring tones and SMS messages," he says.

Since network cards retail for around $200 to $300 and service plans can run as high as $100 a month per user, deploying one of these systems to workers can be a costly proposition. But Floyd & Associates saw an extraordinarily fast return on its investment.

"It's just worked out fantastically," says Floyd. Last December, the firm held an all hands meeting at their headquarters, and one of the first orders of business was handing out EDGE cards to the sales staff. While the training was underway in a conference room, a sales associate received an urgent email over the cellular connection from a prospect who needed immediate information to close a deal; since the salesman was online, he was able to upload and email the material right away. Within an hour, the customer had signed a contract. It was income that could have been lost if not for the cellular modems. "That one contract absolutely paid for the whole year of service," says Floyd.

Even after that meeting, the service continued to pay for itself. Floyd & Associates pays AT&T $80 a month per user for an unlimited data plan, but since it can easily cost a mobile worker $10 a day to use the network connection in a hotel room, the cellular service quickly becomes the more affordable option. The company also doesn't have to pay for lines to be run to its booths when it exhibits at trade shows.

The system even helps sales associates lure in new customers. Floyd & Associates uses Web-based software from WebEx Communications to make presentations, and the EDGE cards allow them to make their pitch anywhere. "The salesman can go right into a CEO's office, put their computer down, and fire up the card," says Floyd. That makes a big impression and gives the salesman a competitive edge, she says.

The system is not without its drawbacks. Although mobile phone vendors have aggressively upgraded their networks, they still can't provide access speeds comparable to the Wi-Fi services increasingly ubiquitous in hotels and airports. But Floyd says the cards provide adequate speed to provide access to the email and applications her employees need. "It's good, it's not where it needs to be, but it's the best out there," she says.

All in all, says Floyd, cellular data services provide a cheap, efficient alternative to Wi-Fi. Cellular even helps users improve the quality of their time off; Floyd recently used it on a boat trip to Key West. "We stayed in contact the whole time," she says. "If you had wireless you wouldn't be able to do that, you'd have to go to a Starbucks or something."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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