Freedom to Roam

A cell-phone for the Off-Road Warrior.

Cynthia Thrailkill is not a classic Road warrior. She doesn't log 500,000 air miles per year or spend four nights a week in hotels. She's an Off-Road Warrior: the kind of person who's always at work but never at her desk.

For Thrailkill, "in-the-office" mobility created many of the same problems as business travel: voice-mail backlogs, annoying beepathons from her pager. No more. She is an early adopter of what promises to be the Next Big Thing in workplace technology: cellular telephones designed for use at the office rather than on the road.

Thrailkill is an interior designer for USAA, the insurance and financial-services company headquartered in San Antonio, Texas. USAA is a big outfit: 2.5 million customers, $32 billion in assets. But its headquarters is downright huge: a 286-acre main campus that includes the second-largest free-standing horizontal office building in the world. (Only the Pentagon is larger.) Which means there are lots of people, covering lots of ground, missing lots of phone calls.

"I'm always away from my desk," Thrailkill explains, "and every time I come back there are ten messages waiting. This phone has changed my day. If I'm walking to another building, I can get calls or return them. I have no desire to use a desk phone again."

Roughly 700 people at USAA's San Antonio campus have internal cell-phones, and that number is expected to grow. They range from senior executives to claims adjusters to the warehouse staff. Every user gets two phones: a traditional desk phone and the cellular, which weighs 8.5 ounces and can be carried easily in a pocket or clipped to a belt. (Thrailkill wears hers strapped to her wrist.) When a call comes in, both phones ring. If a user is moving around the USAA campus, the call automatically gets routed to the dedicated cellular network. The network allows users to transfer calls to colleagues, dial internal extensions -- all the features of a "normal" phone system. If the user leaves the campus, the phone works like a traditional cell-phone.

Southwestern Bell Mobile Systems, based in Dallas, installed this FreedomLink system at USAA, and is the country's leading provider of such wireless business systems. FreedomLink costs between $800 and $1,800 per user (depending on functionality and coverage area) and there is no per-minute charge for airtime. The system is up and running in 150 locations in the United States. (For information, call the FreedomLink hotline at 314-984-2392.)