What's Your Voice Over Wireless Sales Plan?
This VAR/manufacturer projects a $2.8 million increase in state and local government sales from selling rugged mobile VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) solutions.
Since its inception 25 years ago, manufacturer/VAR Western DataCom primarily sold mobile networking solutions to the federal government, boasting customers such as the Department of Defense and the New York and New Jersey Port Authorities. In 2006, sales revenue from federal government customers comprised 90% of Western DataCom's total sales revenue (state and local government sales comprised the other 10%). Starting this year, however, Western DataCom is projecting 40% of its business will come from state and local government sources.
I spoke with Philip Ardire, president of Western DataCom, and he filled me in on the reason behind the uptick in state and local government business. "State and local governments are investing in mobile voice communications solutions, and they're receiving funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Overall, we're projecting a 100% increase in business — half from the manufacturing side and half from the VAR side."
The DHS states that it is making available $1.7 billion in grants for local homeland security programs. (The DHS' Web site, www.dhs.gov, provides a breakdown of how the grants will be allocated.) According to Ardire, nearly half of this funding will be used for specific mobile communications projects that VARs like Western DataCom are qualified and ready to fulfill.
Western DataCom services the state and local government customers with solutions based on components such as Cisco 3200 Series Mobile Access Routers, which are designed for vehicle use and outdoor environments. The VAR then adds its own rugged peripheral components and protective cases (i.e. chassis), creating rugged wireless voice solutions. For example, by bundling its MobileCom XE 3G cellular modem and IPSec (IP security) component with Cisco MARC (mobile access router card), Western DataCom creates a rugged mobile solution that supports high-speed cellular and GPS (global positioning system) communication, plus 256-bit AES (advanced encryption standard) protection. The 15-employee VAR works with large systems integrators such as IBM Global Services to perform installs.
Homeland Security Depends On Multiple Wireless Communication Options
Homeland security programs are designed to protect the country from crises ranging from terrorist attacks to natural disasters. One of the primary needs law enforcement and public safety workers have is reliable communication. In just about every disaster situation, the traditional telephone network and cellular towers are knocked out. This leaves over-the-air communications via CBs (citizen's bands), walkie-talkies, and satellite-based communications options the only options. All of these options become nearly useless when too many people simultaneously try to use them. Anyone who's ever tried to communicate via walkie-talkie with a family member at a large theme park and experienced one or two other walkie-talkie users on the same station can appreciate this problem. Extrapolate this scenario to 50 emergency workers trying to rescue victims from a building, and you see how this could be a major problem. Likewise, satellite communication systems may become overtaxed, causing users to experience dropped calls and/or data messages.
VARs like Western DataCom have the solution to this problem, which is a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot that is created by outfitting emergency vehicles with mobile routers containing multiple wireless radios (e.g. Wi-Fi, GPS, and cellular). In emergency situations, the vehicles can serve as mobile command centers enabling wireless data, voice, and even video communication to emergency personnel within 1,000 feet of the vehicles. Also, for situations requiring communication over larger areas, Western DataCom resells a special durable helium balloon, called an aerostat, which is outfitted with a rugged wireless access point (AP) and can be raised up to 1,000 feet in the sky within 30 minutes. "We've achieved Wi-Fi-based voice communication across distances of 60 miles with the aerostat," says Ardire.
State/Local Government Customers Require Education, Two-Year Sales Cycles
One important difference about working with state/local versus federal government customers is the decision-making process. "In the federal government, there is always someone assigned to emergency response who has a title such as E911 center director of emergency response and who understands how wireless IP technology can help their organization," says Ardire. "When dealing with state/local government customers, it's a whole other matter. The first challenge is that you're rarely dealing with a single decision maker. The second challenge is the lack of technical knowledge of the group [typically having a supervisor or director title] making the decisions." Most of the state/local government customers Western DataCom deals with have experience using walkie-talkies only, so the concept of voice communication over a computer is foreign. Ardire has discovered that directing presentations and demos to a director/supervisor who is 35 years old or younger is the quickest way to educate prospective customers, because prospects in this age group are more likely to be aware of — and more open to — VoIP.
In addition to requiring more education, state/local government agencies also operate on longer sales cycles — two years compared with one year. Typically, about 40 hours is spent on demonstrations that show how quickly a mobile command center can be set up, as well as reviewing case studies detailing previous successful installations and answering customer questions. "The first year is spent educating the customer, the second year entails determining the customer's budget and putting together a proposal, and by the third year the customer is ready to buy," he says. Ardire says that once his company makes it through the educational part of the process, he is able to edge out competitors 90% of the time. The only time Western DataCom won't win is if the customer is set on going with a Motorola-based radio solution and the customer is already using Motorola products.
Help Government Customers Find Grants, Achieve Interoperability
One of the challenges the VAR helps its customers overcome is communication interoperability. "Before a government agency can qualify for funding, it has to prove that every laptop, PDA, and wireless phone can communicate with each other over the same wireless network," says Ardire. "We achieve interoperability by standardizing all mobile communications on IP using Cisco routers, which feature IPICS [IP interoperability and collaboration system]." This enables non-IP walkie-talkies, video cameras, and other non-IP wireless devices to communicate over the same network, and it also assigns IP addresses to each device, enabling wireless encryption.
Western DataCom also helps its customers locate state and local funding by using Digital Government Navigator, an online search tool provided by value-added distributor (VAD) Ingram Micro. "Besides including tens of thousands of RFPs, the Digital Government Navigator includes information about grants that are available in each jurisdiction," says Ardire. "As a result, we often are able to find a state or local lobbyist who can help us obtain grants for our customers."
Western DataCom is able to meet additional customer needs with wireless remote monitoring solutions. For example, when police officers in Cook County, IL, are alerted to a bank robbery in progress, they can check out the scene before entering the bank. Using their rugged laptops, which are equipped with customized software from Notions Systems, they log into the bank's IP camera system and remotely take control of the bank's cameras.
One other DHS need Western DataCom helps its customers solve is poisonous gas detection. The VAR works with third party manufacturers to add chemical detection sensors to outdoor video surveillance cameras. "Cameras installed near a water treatment plant, for example, can be set up to detect and automatically notify hazardous waste personnel in the event of a chlorine spill," says Ardire. Likewise, Western DataCom has successfully integrated video analytic software from ObjectVideo using Western DataCom's Intelligent Video Server (IVS). The IVS enables port authority customers to detect and classify objects such as people, unwanted activity, and vehicles, based on user-defined rules.
Within the state/local government markets, Western DataCom finds that the police are the first group to address homeland security issues with technology solutions, followed by fire and EMS service providers. One of the advantages of Western DataCom's business model is that it enables the VAR to partner with systems integrators and also partner with VADs such as Ingram Micro (see sidebar on page 42) as a vendor and VAR, which opens its business to twice the leads and sales opportunities. And, with homeland security issues being a top priority for the foreseeable future, Western DataCom is positioned for double-digit growth for years to come.