Wireless in San Diego

For a view of how wireless telecom will change the way we work and live, head to San Diego—where everyone from pharmacists to real-estate brokers is now coming unplugged.

When Ken Berger accepted a transfer from Palm Springs, California, to the San Diego offices of Thermo Electron Corp., he promptly landed in house-hunting hell. Over the course of six months, working with two different realtors, Berger lost four separate bidding wars on homes in the area. Meanwhile, the 41-year-old business-unit president and his family were camped out in a temporary apartment. Then he found a new agent, Rick Rothman. In just one week, Berger had his new house—2,600 square feet, three bedrooms, and a den in an upscale, gated community just a quarter mile from the ocean.

This time around, there was no bidding war. Rothman had spotted the newly listed house on his laptop, thanks to its high-speed wireless connection, and used his wireless printer to take care of the paperwork. "It was a last-minute decision to swing by and see the place when we saw the listing," he says. "Ken decided he liked it and was preapproved for a mortgage, so I printed the contract on the spot and had him sign it right there—and the transaction was done. It was amazing!"

Welcome to the new wireless world. It's not just about checking your email mid-Frappuccino at Starbucks, or even about surfing the Web via Wi-Fi in the lobby of your hotel. Here in San Diego, wireless technology is already changing daily life and work in all sorts of ways for all sorts of people, from real-estate agents to doctors and pharmacists, office-building managers to hotel housekeepers.

In part, that's because the telecom and wireless industries have been woven into the life of this city for decades. One key event was the founding of an early wireless outfit called Linkabit by two pioneering University of California at San Diego professors in 1968. A generation later, spin-offs of Linkabit, such as Qualcomm, litter the local landscape, alongside the wireless divisions of larger companies such as Nokia and Siemens. As a result, San Diego has the highest concentration of wireless employment in the country. Add 75,000 miles of underground fiber- optic cable—more than in any other region of the country—and you have a picture of a very connected city. "People here see this stuff at work every day," says Berger. "It gives them higher expectations than most for seeing it put to use in their everyday lives." So take a close look at wireless San Diego, because what is now on the cutting edge here will soon set the standard for the rest of the country.

So how did Rothman actually get that house for Berger? The story starts with a Verizon service based on a nifty new technology produced by Qualcomm called EV-DO, or evolution data-optimized. Using a simple PC card, users can immediately connect to the Internet at speeds up to 2.4 MBPS (about as fast as a cable modem) from anywhere in the Verizon network where the service is offered. This kind of system is known as a wireless WAN, or wide-area network, because it includes vast swaths of geographic area in its coverage zone. By contrast, Wi-Fi, which more people are familiar with, is a wireless LAN, or local-area network, technology. Its data connections are lightning-fast but concentrated in a very small coverage area—usually a radius of just 100 to 300 feet from a base station—so it's not much use to, say, a real-estate agent showing houses scattered across the greater San Diego region. Wireless WAN data connections have been available on the nation's various cell networks for several years now, but mostly at speeds even slower than dial-up. The new Qualcomm/Verizon EV-DO network is the country's first metropolitan wireless WAN service that approaches broadband speeds.

Using a wireless Gateway laptop hooked up to the Verizon network, Rothman checked the online real estate MLS, or multiple listing service, which showed him that a new house had just gone on the market. Immediately, Rothman drove Berger to see it. Rothman filled in the contracts on his computer and sent the documents to his HP wireless printer. Seconds later, the contracts were signed by Berger and the seller of his new home.

Rothman, who, with his wife, co-owns a real-estate agency called HomeBuyer Agents, says that the technology has transformed business for him and the 15 agents who work for him, nearly all of whom are EV-DO-equipped. "We work in very competitive markets. This kind of real-time access makes the difference between you getting a house or getting into a bidding war the next day that ultimately costs you the property," he says. Verizon rolled EV-DO out in San Diego and Washington, DC, last October and, if it likes what it sees, should take it nationwide in the near future.

High-Tech Housekeeping

Across town, executive housekeeper Irma Simental is seated at a computer screen in her basement office looking over the day's workload. It's a pretty slow day at the 73-room Pacific Terrace Hotel, in Pacific Beach, a Wednesday after the high season is over. Still, there will be a few new check-ins this afternoon, and several current guests have declined housekeeping service this morning or are checking out late. It's creating a backlog for the housekeepers who were assigned to turn over those rooms for new guests, and the front desk needs to be notified about which rooms will be ready and when. Worse yet, Pacific Terrace's 13 housekeepers are from Mexico and El Salvador and speak only Spanish. Although Simental is bilingual, her assistant manager, who is from Australia, can't speak Spanish, and most of the front-desk employees don't, either.

A year ago, situations like these caused big delays and staff frustration, but today, Simental is unfazed. She glances at the flashing blocks of color on her screen and calls Faye Cooper, the Australian assistant manager, on a push-to-talk wireless phone: "Gloria is backed up on the first floor—her rooms have Do Not Disturbs on them. Switch her over to help get the check-ins ready." From the other side of the hotel, Cooper answers, "Got it," and taps a series of commands onto a wireless-enabled Compaq iPaq handheld. Scarcely a minute later, the blocks on Simental's computer screen change colors, showing that Gloria De La Fuente has "logged out" of the first floor and is headed to a different floor to help get newly vacated rooms ready for the next guests.

Cooper's and De La Fuente's iPaqs, Simental's office computer, and the Pacific Terrace front-desk computers are all connected to a program called Just-in-Time Housekeeping Integrated, or JiHi, which is made by a Quebec City, Canada-based company called Palm Hospitality Technologies, and runs on a basic Wi-Fi network installed at the hotel. When De La Fuente arrives at work each morning, she logs on to her iPaq and sees her workload for the day in Spanish. As she works through each room, De La Fuente clicks through a series of screens prompting her to tidy the room, check the minibar, enter maintenance requests, and note if the guest has refused service or still has a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. Any messages that she receives en route from Cooper appear on her screen in Spanish, while De La Fuente's own entries are immediately uploaded to the main system in English. Once she finishes a room, it appears on Cooper's iPaq as an inspection reminder. When Cooper is finished inspecting, the room appears on the front desk's computer screen as either occupied or ready for a new guest. Simental monitors the entire process from her office, or from her own iPaq as she supervises other activities around the hotel. With the built-in language translation and the always-on network of JiHi, the staff can seamlessly shift the workload around; maintenance and inventory requests are entered directly into the system, eliminating lots of data entry and paperwork. As an extra perk, hotel guests with wireless laptops can use the Wi-Fi network free of charge.

With her housekeeping staff the first in the United States to test the JiHi system, Simental was nervous about being a guinea pig. "When they told me they were bringing this in, I said, 'Ay! Why me?' But the girls caught on really fast—especially the ones I thought would be afraid of it." Now Simental says she would never go back. "I've worked everything from 250- to 1,400-room places and I can tell you, if we had this system then—wow!" Pacific Terrace's owner, Bartell Hotels, is now considering expanding JiHi to its six other hotels in the San Diego area. "I felt the biggest problem would be the fact that the housekeeping and maintenance staffs are not typically the most computer literate," says Pacific Terrace's general manager, J. Robert Kingery. "I have been floored by how the housekeeping staff took to it here." Simental smiles. "See? I told you."

Pharmacists On the Fly

Not knowing which guest rooms are ready for check-in is frustrating, to be sure. But that's nothing compared to trying to find ways to control spiraling health-care costs, improve hospital efficiency, and ensure that no sick patient ever experiences a bad drug interaction because of a data-entry mistake or delay. It's problems like these that San Diego's Sharp Healthcare is trying to address with its foray into wireless technology.

About a year ago, the managed health-care system began installing Cisco Systems Wi-Fi networks in all of its seven San Diego-area hospitals. The first efforts—the introduction of rolling, wireless computer carts in intensive care and the emergency room—were a way to save space by eliminating large, fixed computer stations and clearing away cumbersome coils of cables. They were also an effort to improve efficiency and reduce mistakes—wireless-networked devices allowed hospital staff to track and update patient care and billing information while on the move, rather than storing up handwritten notes until the end of the day, then performing time-consuming and mistake-prone manual data entry. "This way, nurses can complete charting in the ICU, or track care decisions made in the ER, on the spot," explains Sharp's chief information officer and senior vice president William A. Spooner.

At Sharp Memorial Hospital, a 330-bed hospital in the north end of San Diego, practicing pharmacist and resident "computer guy" S. John Johnson is leading Sharp's latest wireless pilot program, which tests tablet PCs with the hospital's pharmacy staff. Today's hospital pharmacists often make rounds in the wards to check prescriptions written by doctors, watching for allergies or drug interactions. In the past, Johnson would make his rounds, then either hunt for a free computer terminal at the nurse's station or return to his desk in the first-floor pharmacy to input information into the computer and approve the medicines. Only then could a nurse collect the drugs and administer them to the patient.

Now, Johnson does everything in real time on his wireless Toshiba Tablet PC. "We can approve in-house prescriptions from wherever we are," he says. As the pharmacist moves from ward to ward, his prescription approvals register on the hospital's computer network. Most of the hospital's drugs are stored in large automated dispensing machines in each of the 14 nursing stations at the hospital. The networked machines, which are manufactured by San Diego-based Pyxis Corp., resemble overgrown ATMs. Once prescription approvals are uploaded to the network by the pharmacist, attending nurses can log on to the nearest Pyxis machine with a user name and a fingerprint scan and receive the drugs.

Next on Johnson's wish list is making the approval process for outpatient prescriptions similarly efficient. Most of those still arrive as faxes, which quickly pile up. A new fax server will take the faxes electronically, then redirect them to pharmacists' tablet PCs for wireless approval. Patients may now regularly wait as long as two hours for a prescription; Johnson predicts that the new system should cut that to 45 minutes. But the real impact will be felt in rural clinics that can't afford full-time pharmacists. Using a Pyxis machine at the clinic and the server at Sharp, a hospital-based pharmacist could help review off-site prescriptions and the medicine would automatically dispense at the clinic.

With the success of the pharmacy pilot program, and with mobile computer terminals already a fixture throughout the hospital system, Spooner is already looking for other ways to deploy wireless technology at Sharp, including outfitting some doctors with wireless iPaqs to track patient care and ensure proper billing. "Health care is a no-brainer industry that needs it," he says.

Better Office Buildings

Back downtown, commercial real-estate developer Matthew Spathas is surveying the city from one of the highest vantage points in San Diego: the rooftop of One America Plaza, a newly opened commercial office building managed by Sentre Partners, of which Spathas is one. The roof offers a view of two other Sentre Partners properties: the NBC building and the SBC building, both with bold logos that proclaim their identities across the skyline. These three buildings are the start of what Spathas hopes will be a revolution in the way businesses look at bandwidth and wireless access.

The NBC and SBC buildings are fully wired office spaces where new tenants have plug-and-play 100 MBPS Internet access the instant they move in. The lobbies and plaza areas are popular free Wi-Fi hot spots. But it is One America Plaza that is Sentre's crown jewel: a 600,000-square-foot office building with the trademark ready-to-use broadband access, but also featuring Wi-Fi access on all 34 floors, (not to mention the four below-ground parking levels). The wireless service, which offers connection speeds up to 54 MBPS over a Cisco Systems Wi-Fi network, is free to all tenants, while jacking into the 100 MBPS wired network costs just $250 per month. That compares to the typical cost of about $900 per month that an individual commercial tenant normally pays in order to receive T-1 service (60 times slower) from a local ISP—and that's not including installation, or the subsequent costs of deploying a private Wi-Fi network.

Spathas contends that sky-high broadband prices are the result of inefficient installation. Imagine, he says, if each tenant had to install his own electrical service on moving into a building. "Of course it's expensive to run 34 different lines into the building, sending out teams to rip things up 34 different times," he says. Sentre offers broadband as a standard part of the building's infrastructure, just like water and electricity—and it is priced accordingly. Spathas sees this shift as an inevitable step toward meeting rising customer expectations for full-service corporate real estate. Free Wi-Fi is just icing on the cake. "Broadband is a utility; Wi-Fi is an amenity," he says. "You don't get charged for every extra ride on the elevator or every drink at the water fountain."

The strategy seems to be working. One America Plaza, which started offering the new service in June 2003, is at 95% occupancy with 35 tenants. Bruce Shepherd, a partner at law firm Latham & Watkins, decided to move 200 employees into the building in February 2004, largely on the strength of Sentre's broadband and Wi-Fi strategy. "This service and what it evidenced about their management style was a big part of that decision," he says. "If they're forward thinking about this, we figure they will probably continue to think ahead about other issues as they come up."

Spathas believes that over the next decade, commercial developers everywhere will move toward providing bandwidth according to his utility model. To that end, he has cofounded a broadband utility company called Bandwidth Now, hoping to capitalize on the trend. In the meantime, he is sure that San Diego is riding a very important wave of the future. Taking in the view from the top of One America Plaza one last time, he pauses, then says, "We're going to be the wireless capital of the world."

Alison Overholt (aoverholt@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer.

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1 Comments

  • Tim Byrne

    Wide area Network it is brilliant! I have to wonder though that had the agent worked with the purchasers 6 months earlier would he have located the home or is it the listing timing that was important here? Does this type of transaction eliminate the Chartered Surveyors? There is no doubt that the Company sales would increase when you can close a sale on the spot. This is efficient not only for the buyer who want to eliminate competitors, but it Company's response to all areas of their business would be prompt.