Picture a large, multilevel commercial project with electrical work progressing in stages, supplies and materials arriving, journeymen and apprentices performing different jobs—it could be a confusing mess. Yet, everyone is keeping in touch.

Robust 3G or 4G wireless networks provide instant communication by voice or text using a variety of devices, including wireless telephones, push-to-talk devices, smartphones and tablet computers. Wherever users can connect to their wireless network, their smartphones and tablet computers provide access to the Internet. Clearly, wireless technology and advanced wireless mobile communication capabilities have changed the way America works.

“Mobile wireless devices bring significant positive impact to the workplace, allowing managers and employees in the field to communicate wherever they are, be in constant touch with the home office and suppliers, communicating by voice, transmitting and receiving data, and taking and transmitting photos,” said Amy Storey, assistant vice president, public affairs of CTIA—The Wireless Association.

Cell phones have evolved into smartphones—handsets with Internet connectivity. In addition, multifunction tablet devices are increasingly common in the workplace, she said.

“For these devices, there are more than 1.5 million apps, with more introduced every day,” Storey said. “Because wireless is such a competitive market, a product someone wants that is not on the market today likely will be available soon. Competition drives innovation, and consumers benefit. There are so many options today, wireless communications systems can be customized to specific needs. Who needs what device and applications are questions individual organizations must decide.”

Indeed, identifying the devices and applications that best implement a wireless network are dilemmas many business owners and managers struggle with. There are so many devices, apps and program options, and technology is changing so fast, so how does a company adopt an efficient and affordable wireless communications strategy to fit its specific needs? A lack of construction-industry--specific information does not make the task any easier.

Members of Federated Electrical Contractors (FEC), an international network of electrical contracting companies, considered mobile communications at the organization’s 2012 winter meeting. A February 2012 survey of FEC members provides insight about how these electrical contractors are incorporating wireless communications into their operations. The base of the survey is small, but it is industry-specific.

Questions were about devices and platforms, apps being used, and how they are being used to expedite communication between offices, personnel in the field, project owners, suppliers and other organizations.

Most survey participants do not limit devices to a single brand. Many (21 percent) use both Apple and BlackBerry products. Eighteen percent operate Apple, BlackBerry and Android, and 15 percent use Apple and Android. Nine percent have BlackBerry only, 6 percent operate Apple only and 6 percent operate Android exclusively.

Primary uses listed were calendar, camera, maintaining contacts, email, accessing the Internet, accessing online weather reports and maps, telephony, and texting. Secondary uses were viewing documents and markup of drawings and accessing and using office software programs, including Word and Excel.

To be more specific, respondents reported using mobile devices for accessing and updating project data, including drawings; sharing files; permitting; making videos and presentations (e.g., safety training); performing various project management tasks; purchasing requisitions; completing quality control applications; record keeping; accessing computers or entering data remotely; and executing simple takeoffs and submitting bids.

The top apps cited by the survey: DropBox (15 percent), Adobe PDF reader (12 percent), AutoCAD WS and Office 2 (9 percent each), and Evernote and Note Shelf (6 percent each).

Many owners and managers answered the question of who in the field actually needs mobile communications devices, specifically smartphones, tablet computers or both. The FEC study found general foremen were those most often issued the devices (53 percent). Project managers were next (23 percent).

Security is a concern. Seventy-nine percent reported using security measures, 23 percent employ network security with firewalls, and 56 percent have device security, including passwords and remote lock and wipe features.

Discussions included available devices, using consultants to develop custom apps, and the effect of mobile technology on the ways businesses are being operated and managed.

Commonwealth Electric Co. of the Midwest, Lincoln, Neb., works throughout the Midwest and has expanded to Western states with locations in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz. Commonwealth has implemented a wireless communication system throughout the company. Commonwealth’s owners and management are committed to providing the tools necessary to provide the best possible project environment for the company’s skilled field workers, said Nick Cole, Commonwealth’s manager of construction services.

“We feel that we are ahead of the curve [in] the use of wireless and digital communications technologies,” he said. “The information flow to and from a job site must be immediate and detailed. The timeliness of communication and information flow relates directly to productivity and potential lost time, which directly translates to greater or lesser profitability.”

Cole said all management personnel at all locations use smartphones. Some also use tablet computers. All field supervisory personnel, service electricians and warehouse personnel use wireless (nonsmartphone) telephone/two-way communications devices.

“The two-way communications feature allows on-site communication and direct communication between the job-site and warehouse personnel,” Cole said. “We intentionally do not provide for Internet access for our field personnel.”

On the management side, he said, wireless technology is a key element in receiving, sending and responding to important information related to a specific project or for securing new work.

“By utilizing smartphones,” he said, “we can remain current every second of the day, which we feel directly affects the profitability of our work. Immediate day-to-day communication between the project managers and job site supervisors is critical to our ability to be successful as a company. It also brings peace of mind to know that we are in immediate contact with our key field personnel during times of emergency should they arise.”

Cole said a primary benefit of using a wireless communication system with field personnel is being able to answer questions immediately, whether field- or management-related.

“Essentially, when I leave the office, the office comes with me,” Cole said.

Maintaining up-to-date contact information is vital.

“Contact information applies to all means of communications; website information; and other details, such as how contacts have been used in the past; and other details, critical to business relationships. Mobile devices can be used to schedule meetings and respond to meeting requests,” Cole said.

Useful apps provide weather information (WeatherBug, Weather Channel and others), navigation (TeleNav, Google Maps, Poynt and other map apps), and camera applications to take photos of field issues in need of immediate action.

Commonwealth recognizes the importance of keeping up with advances and effectively implementing technology. It’s mandatory to remain competitive, Cole said.

“We are considering equipping key supervisors and service electricians with smartphones capable of scanning credit cards and printing receipts,” he said. “That will enable invoices to be developed and collected at the time of service, moving collections ahead potentially by 30 to 60 days or more. Basically, if a newer or better technology will translate to quicker cash flow and greater profitability, we will implement it.”

“I liken using the latest communications technologies to providing the best and most current tooling for our electricians so that they can do their work,” he said. “Providing the proper tools, whether it is an actual tool or digital device, tells our personnel we are willing to invest in making their job easier to complete, and that translates into greater profitability.”

Contractors that become dependent on wireless communications systems should monitor issues about spectrum—the radio frequencies that are designated for communications services and public safety networks.

“Just as clogged highways can slow or stop traffic, mobile devices must have adequate spectrum to communicate,” said CTIA’s Storey.

The federal government allocates spectrum, designates specific uses and assigns frequencies within allocations. Mobile communications assignments are granted both to commercial service providers and private users.

“Looking ahead, spectrum availability is an issue facing the wireless industry,” Storey said. “Spectrum is a finite resource. For the future, it is critical that service providers be able to purchase unused and underutilized spectrum.”

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.