Root to help enterprises choose, monitor mobile operators

Root's small mobile-phone client monitors real-time wireless network performance

Root Wireless is still working on a commercial offering that will help enterprises choose and monitor cellular service providers, but it plans to release a new consumer client designed for the "wow factor" in just a few weeks.

Root has developed a small client that runs in the background on cell phones, collecting information about network coverage.

For enterprises, an IT manager could use future offerings from Root to make better decisions about which mobile operator to choose and to make sure that operators live up to service level agreements.

"If you're an IT guy for a Fortune 1000 company, the process you go through of assessing which carrier you choose is surprisingly archaic," said Paul Griff, co-founder and CEO of Root. Typically, IT managers pass out devices from a couple different operators to some employees and ask for anecdotal feedback, he said.

Root is piloting different potential offerings with enterprises and could offer a service that would let enterprises load Root's clients onto trial phones distributed to employees, collecting concrete details about coverage and other information like data throughput, signal strength and latency.

In addition, Root is working on a dashboard that an IT manager could use to look at aggregate data collected from all Root enterprise and consumer users. On a map, an IT person could filter coverage data by all users, consumers, all employees, just one group of employees or users of a specific phone operating system. The data is detailed down to 60 meters.

An enterprise could choose to use that dashboard on an ongoing basis as a way to ensure that operators are complying with SLAs. Operators have been offering SLAs to large enterprises and even small businesses, promising to pay penalties for failing to meet the agreement, Griff said. "It's a safe thing for them to offer when there's no way for an enterprise to come back and demand payment of penalties with no empirical data," he said.

With Root Wireless' system, companies have the data to enforce such SLAs, he said. Since Root's offering isn't being used commercially by enterprises yet, it's not certain that operators will accept such data, but "we think carriers will honor it," Griff said.

So far, operators have been surprisingly interested in Root, he said. One that he couldn't name because of a nondisclosure agreement is working on delivering Root's offering to customers. "They have sufficient confidence in their own network. They want to put this out there because they think they can provide a significant marketing advantage in the enterprise world," he said.

Root is also in early conversations with two other operators that appear interested in a similar idea, he said.

Some of the data that will appear in the dashboard is collected by consumers who have downloaded the app to their phones. So far, that app is not very entertaining, Griff said. "We will very soon be launching our first 'wow factor' client," he said. It's intended to offer a better, more entertaining user interface that could attract more consumers to download it.

Griff was reluctant to give away too many details, but he said users will be able to view real-time information about signal strength, data speed and network latency, and compare their experiences to what they would be getting on a different network. Users will also be able to compare the service they get over time, based on their own specific usage patterns, with the service they would get from other operators. He expects the client to be out around the end of July.

The current phone software works on most Research In Motion and Android phones. Root is working on an iPhone app, but it'll be much more limited due to the restrictions Apple imposes on developers. Anyone can download the software to their phones now.

In order to boost the amount of data it has on hand, Root has hired people who travel "meticulously planned drive courses" in 21 markets with a kit in the car that includes phones from all the big carriers equipped with Root's software. Once Root gets enough users in the market, it hopes to quit doing the drives.

Even before the new client comes out, Root expects to launch a new online dashboard that's available to the public free. The current version is available on Cnet's Web site and the new one will launch as soon as next week, although it will likely roll out initially on Cnet's site in a limited fashion.

Root is still toying with offerings for enterprises and expects to start rolling some out commercially in a few months.

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