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More than skin deep: skin care and cosmetics company Mary Kay faced numerous challenges with its wireless implementation.

The technical staff at Mary Kay, one of the world's largest direct sellers of skin care and cosmetics products, has been working since 2001 to implement wireless PDAs and pocket PCs to improve IT response times and boost productivity among employees. According to senior technical engineer Brent Frerck, the company's information systems and technology (IST) staff started with a pilot project to implement pocket PCs for some of its technicians.

A long-time Microsoft Windows shop, the IT department chose Windows Mobile devices for the pilot to enable the IST staff to maintain e-mail and phone contact while away from their desks, and in many cases eliminate the need to carry a laptop, pager and cellular phone wherever they went. "We really wanted to reduce the number of devices our techs had to carry," says Frerck.

Over the year of the pilot, Mary Kay's IST staff learned a lot about the limitations of early Windows Mobile devices, Frerck says, and also about the problem of trying to maintain cellular connections using signals from external cell towers. Although the company had an in-building cellular system furnished by Nextel for phones used by its security and facilities personnel, the wireless PDAs were on a different network and had to rely on coverage from external cell sites.

The problem was that the 13-story, 599,000-square-foot company headquarters of the $2.2 billion revenue company (fiscal year 2005) is located on the border between two cellular coverage areas. There were signals from at least two different towers hitting the building, and wireless device connections were constantly being handed off between cell towers in places where the signal was strong enough. In many cases, such as interior offices, conference rooms and inside the building's four-level underground parking garage, there was no signal at all. Despite these issues, the pilot was expanded and had grown to 50 users, including some of the company's top executives.

During this time, devices were upgraded to Motorola MPX 220 flip phones and Siemens SX66 pocket PCs. These devices had better connectivity, Frerck says, but there were still a lot of complaints about spotty in-building coverage. While there was good coverage from the external cell towers in exterior offices on the upper floors of the building, for example, many users complained about coverage gaps and continuous hunting for signals that led to poor call quality, dropped calls and reduced battery life.

PRODUCTIVITY IMPROVEMENTS

At this point, the IT staff proposed deploying an in-building cellular system as a corporate IST initiative. "We knew that if we were to roll out these devices across our staff in a production situation, we would have to solve the coverage problem," says Frerck. "We sold it to management on the basis of increased productivity. We figured that in soft dollars, wireless devices would give us an additional 10 to 20 minutes of productivity per day per employee."

Financially, the project was not a hard sell. Mary Kay approached the project using a cost-sharing model, where the selected wireless carrier would pay for deployment of the in-building wireless coverage solution in exchange for an exclusive corporate agreement. Under the agreement, Mary Kay would have to pay for the wireless devices and an Exchange 2003 server to support e-mail, calendaring and contacts. In all, the outlay for 100 phones, PDAs and smart phones, plus a Windows server to run Mobile Windows services, came to less than $50,000.

Once the IST staff got buy-in from the facilities and security staffs, as well as network infrastructure management and CIO Kregg Jodie, Frerck and his team opened up bidding for in-building coverage solutions among major wireless carriers in the area. AT&T Wireless was supplying the pilot and had the inside track due to its GSM network, but Mary Kay's staff also solicited bids from Verizon and Sprint.

The bidding, negotiation and approval process took about 18 months, during which carriers conducted site surveys and evaluated alternative coverage options. Adding to the complexity of the process, AT&T also wanted to negotiate with Mary Kay to add a rooftop cell tower to its building to provide better coverage in the area around its building.

Ultimately, AT&T won the contract. During the proposal phase, it brought in two different in-building system vendors-LGC Wireless and Ericsson-to propose solutions. The carrier realized that an in-building base station and a distributed antenna system (DAS) would be needed to solve the problem, so it got bids from both vendors.

Reviewing AT&T's proposal, the IST staff's key concern was that the new in-building system should not interfere with the existing Nextel services being used by the company's security and facilities personnel. AT&T assured Mary Kay staff that its system would be on a different frequency and would not interfere.

Finally, in late spring 2005, Mary Kay corporate signed an agreement with Cingular Wireless (which had merged with AT&T Wireless). Cingular selected the LGC Wireless InterReach Unison system to provide the distributed antenna coverage.

Mary Kay then hired IDEX, a network cabling installation vendor, to deploy the hubs, cabling and remote antennas for the LGC Unison system. The system has an active architecture that uses managed hubs linked via fiber and Category 5 cabling to deliver consistent signal strength at each antenna. It includes four main hubs linked to the carrier's micro base station in the corporate network operations center. Traffic is backhauled from the base station to the Cingular network via a terrestrial T-1 line.

From the main hubs, the system transmits wireless signals via fiber up the building riser to 10 Unison expansion hubs located in wiring closets-six distributed across alternate floors of the building, two spread over alternate parking levels, one in the lobby and one covering ramps between parking levels. From the expansion hubs, the signals move over standard Category 5 cable to remote access units (antennas) and approximately 80 distributed antennas to provide pervasive coverage. The Unison system supports 850-MHz and 1900-MHz voice and EDGE data services for Cingular.

IDEX deployed the antennas, hubs and cabling throughout the complex within two weeks, but the base station was delayed for nearly three months. "Cingular had earmarked a base station for us but then ended up shipping it to Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina," says Frerck. "We had to wait until early December before they got us a replacement."

As promised, the new system had no impact on the existing Nextel system. The only modification required was the addition of a few more antennas in the parking garage to prevent calls from dropping as employees drove on the ramps between levels.

From the moment it was activated, the in-building system began delivering results, Frerck says. Dropped calls and dead spots disappeared, and employees found that they could take calls or check e-mail anywhere.

"Now," says Frerck, "I can walk out of my CIO's office on the 13th floor, get on my cell phone, and take the elevator all the way down to the fourth level of the underground parking garage without dropping a call." In fact, he says, the company's senior vice president of human resources found that instead of having to wait for an important early evening call, she could forward the call to her cell phone and take it in the parking garage on her way home.

Other than allowing employees to monitor calls and e-mail while away from their desks, one important application for the IST department has been text messaging. "We now get better coverage inside and outside the building for text messages than we do with the paging system," Frerck says.

On the other hand, the IST staff has not eliminated the use of pagers inside the building. "The thing about paging is that it continues to beep you if you don't respond right away, whereas a smart phone alerts you only once," says Frerck. "When we call a network technician about a critical problem, we need to make sure they get the alert and respond. The pagers are still best for that."

For Mary Kay, the system is inexpensive to maintain. IST hosts the Windows Mobile 5 system with a dedicated Dell PowerEdge 2600 server with a Gigabit Ethernet connection to the server management network. "We don't need a very powerful server," says Frerck. "It's the nature of using a front-end server with IIS (Microsoft Windows NT Internet information server) that there's very little overhead, so it doesn't take a lot of hardware to support that application."

Cingular manages the DAS from its own operations center. The Unison system's active architecture and extensive operations and maintenance capabilities allow the carrier to receive instant alerts so it can respond quickly when there is a problem with an antenna or another part of the system. In some cases, the carrier may become aware of an antenna failure before users notice it, Frerck says.

Wireless service costs have increased with growing usage of the cellular devices, he adds, because voice and data service costs for Windows Mobile devices are roughly double what they were for plain phones. Employees, however, can conduct business on their way to and from work and to, from or during the many meetings held throughout the day. In fact, the original estimates of productivity savings have been exceeded.

"We estimate that we get about 60-70 minutes per user per day instead of the 20 minutes we had projected," says Frerck. "People can read and respond to e-mail when they're in a meeting or at home watching TV, so they get more done and respond more quickly when they're away from the office."

Overall, the in-building system has made on-the-go communications possible and has also given Mary Kay a backup communications channel. "We like the idea that we can use our cell phones in disaster situations when our electrically powered desk phones might be down," says Frerck. "We can still get a cellular signal and use data cards if necessary to get out to the Internet." In addition, the pervasive cellular coverage allows Mary Kay's IT technicians to move around and communicate anywhere in the building if the network goes down.

In the future, Cingular plans to upgrade the building's cellular data service to high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA), so employees will be able to use transfer speeds of up to 1.5 Mbps. The InterReach Unison system already supports HSDPA, so the upgrade will not require any changes to the active electronics in the in-building system or changes to the distributed antenna placements.

Currently, Mary Kay provides Cingular 3100, 8100, and 2125 phones and smart phones to nearly 350 employees. The company plans to offer phones, smart phones and PDAs to most of its management staff.

ABOUT LGC WIRELESS

Founded in mid-1996, LGC Wireless is based in San Jose, Calif., with sales and service offices throughout the United States and in the United Kingdom, Italy, Chile, United Arab Emirates, Japan and China. The company provides scalable, high-performance wireless services inside buildings and public facilities. With its recent acquisition of Alvarion's cellular mobile unit (formerly InterWAVE Communications), LGC now offers complete in-building solutions that address wireless coverage and capacity challenges for carriers, enterprises and public agencies. LGC's products offer low-cost installation, end-to-end monitoring and management, and easy integration of emerging wireless technologies. The company currently ships its products to more than 40 countries and supports all major wireless access standards, including TDMA, CDMA, GSM, iDEN, 1xRTT, EV-DO, GPRS, W CDMA, UMTS and 802.11.

Ian Sugarbroad joined LGC Wireless in 2002 as president and CEO. Previously, he was president of InterWAVE Communications, where he led its IPO. He began his career with Nortel, where, over 20 years, he played key roles in a number of business units.

For more information from LGC Wireless: rsleads.com/703cn-251

Charles Rubin is a freelance writer based in northern California.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc.
Author:Rubin, Charles
Publication:Communications News
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:1971
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