Tablets present new mobile cost management challenges

IT administrators are learning that they need to closely watch data usage on tablets

With tablets invading the enterprise, IT departments are facing new challenges around controlling mobile connectivity expenses.

"These tablets now have cellphone plans and that can be expensive if you don't understand what's included," said Gregg Davis, CIO for Webcor Builders, a general contractor company. "It can be more complicated than with cellphones."

That's because people want to use more applications on their tablets than on their phones. "The kinds of applications people are likely to use are more data intensive," said Kitty Weldon, an analyst with Current Analysis. "My appetite for wanting to watch a video on a mobile phone is really low but I can see it on a tablet."

Some of Davis' tablet users start out on the lowest-price data plans and find it difficult to know when they are going to hit their limit, he said. Since they don't know they're almost out, they may use data-intensive services, like streaming a movie, and easily surpass their limit, he said. They also may not know how to easily flip between Wi-Fi and cellular as a way to cut costs, he said.

"Some people end up being great and having almost no usage and others will have astronomical bills because they're in a foreign country streaming a movie," he said.

He uses Visage Mobile to monitor users' cell and tablet mobile services and to make changes to cut costs. The hosted tool aggregates all usage from the multiple mobile operators that Webcor uses. With it, Davis can easily spot everyone who is using expensive 411 calls on their phones, people who are roaming or workers who are clearly attached to a plan that's not a good match.

He can also at a glance look at the total utilization of data and voice plans across users and devices. "We want to keep that pool utilization anywhere around 80 per cent," he said. That would mean that users are on the correct plans so that they have a bit of room in case they have a heavy usage month but aren't paying too much for service they don't use.

That feature came in handy recently when Webcor upgraded around 350 BlackBerry phones. The operator erroneously put users onto a more expensive plan. A few months later, Webcor noticed that utilization had dropped to around 30 per cent. After looking into it, the company noticed that the workers were on a more expensive plan that included minutes and data they weren't using.

When it told the operator about the mistake, Webcor got a $53,000 refund for the 90 days that people were on the wrong plan, Davis said.

Without the tool Webcor would be hard-pressed to closely examine bills from the phone companies. Its bills are typically around 1,300 pages long, he said. "It's mind-boggling to figure out who's doing what, where," he said.

Such expense management products can help IT administrators better manage mobile costs on tablets and phones, Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner, said. Some products will let administrators send bills to supervisors so they see the cost overages and can talk to the users. Tangoe is another company that offers telecom expense management services, as do some of the service providers like AT&T, he said.

Businesses can instead give workers a monthly stipend and have the bills sent directly to workers, he said. That can help ensure that workers are careful about expensive overages.

Davis doesn't expect operators to go back to the unlimited plans, but such plans would be ideal for him. "The unlimited all-you-can-eat is best for us, even if you have to pay a little more," he said. He would prefer a fixed cost that he can budget for and that allows users to not have to worry about data usage. Sprint currently offers an unlimited data plan but users may want devices that Sprint doesn't offer, he said.

Challenges with managing mobile rate plans will likely grow as an issue for IT managers as more tablets enter the workplace. "Our number of devices with the cell carrier exceeds users," Davis noted, since now some of his workers have tablets in addition to phones.

Deloitte recently projected that this year, more than 50 per cent of computing devices sold around the world will be smartphones, tablets and non-PC netbooks. More than a quarter of the tablets sold this year will be bought by businesses, Deloitte said. Many of those devices will have Internet connections that enterprises will need to manage in order to keep costs down.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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