Consumers who don't surf the Web daily blame it on an aversion to sitting in front of a computer screen or hectic travel schedules. Based on developments with wireless devices, consumers won't have these reasons to fall back on much longer.Insurance carriers are among a host of U.S. businesses that have developed wireless Internet technology that provides consumers access to their Web sites through devices such as cell phones and hand-held computers.

In September, Mayfield Village, Ohio-based Progressive Insurance Corp., adopted the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). By equipping a Web browser within a cell phone or hand-held device, Progressive's WAP technology enables customers to track down a local agent, and the agent's office is automatically dialed.

In the near future, Progressive hopes to unveil an application that gives customers wireless access to their insurance policies to review and pay bills from a remote location.

"Mobile data service will become the norm in this industry," says Fred Khoury, wireless Internet manager for Progressive. "We have found that people want to access account data in more ways than one."

Progressive is among a growing legion of insurance industry players that have recognized the potential of WAP. Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm Insurance Cos. plans to implement a wireless system for customers to access, send and receive information from State Farm's Web site, www.statefarm.com. "Wireless technology is the way for people to have 24-by-7 access to data. We believe it will have a huge impact on our customers," says Robert Reiner, State Farm's manager of enterprise Internet service.

In early October, BenefitMall.com, a Dallas-based online exchange offering small-business employee group benefits plans, announced that, starting in first-quarter 2001, it will provide its brokers with wireless access to benefits programs from multiple carriers. Brokers can activate the system via Palm Corp.'s Palm VII hand-held computer, then access BenefitMall's quoting engines to obtain a policy quote and check the status of an application.

Progressive's motivation to develop wireless Internet technology stems from data revealing that 63% of all individuals who own a cell phone would be willing to access the Internet at least once a month, according to a study by Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass.

Progressive developed its program in-house, taking about three months to complete. "We wanted to get in on the ground floor of the wireless Internet evolution," Khoury explains. "We look at wireless technology seriously, and developing it internally provided ownership so that we could use it for future applications."

In its discussions with cell phone and hand-held computer developers, Progressive determined that the market potential was promising, since "a majority of new-generation cell phones that are built with Web browsers are relatively inexpensive to develop," Khoury says. "As a result, the costs to consumers are fairly reasonable."

Progressive customers using a wireless device to find an agent can punch in their zip code using the keypad on a cell phone or hand-held device, and have the data returned within minutes. Deploying what's known as Wireless Markup Language (WML), Progressive enables a customer information request to be translated by the corporate database and then transmitted through a Web server before it's displayed on a mobile device.

No mass migration

Industry observers project that the expansion of the wireless Internet market will occur at a steady pace.

"It's doubtful that wireless Internet technology will ever replace PCs and laptops because, while it's convenient, its overall limitations won't lead to a migration from desktop to WAP," says Todd Eyler, senior research analyst specializing in insurance industry automation for Forrester Research. "But it can provide on-the-spot accommodation. If you're shopping for a car and need to find out if you're qualified for a loan, you can use WAP to instantaneously determine loan status."

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