You can't hop into a cab, step into an elevator or walk down the street without passing someone using a Blackberry, iPhone or other type of mobile device. Business professionals, students, police and even your kids are connected every second of the day. As a result, more and more carriers are recognizing the inherent value of mobile technologies as a productivity tool, and have embraced this technology.

So with the Internet crisscrossing the welkin, cellular networks penetrating deep forests and the next generation of technology likely to offer connectivity in that precarious place between the Earth's mantle and core, it just doesn't pay for insurers to ignore the importance and benefits of mobile technology.

Given the current capacity for immediate wireless contact and information transfer, it's imperative for insurers to arm their employees with mobile technology. Claimants have the tendency to become long-term customers when claims reps or adjusters provide fast, accurate customer service-as was the case after the Katrina crisis and is likely to happen with the recent fires in Southern California.

So, given the multitude of technologies available, insurers, say industry experts, are well advised to take advantage of their benefits before they fall too far behind the competition.

WHO AND WHAT

Business is increasingly being conducted out of the office, and the need for insurers to provide a platform for people in all departments, across all lines, is palpable.

Karen Pauli, senior analyst with Needham, Mass.-based TowerGroup Inc., believes state-of-the-art claims personnel should have tablet PCs equipped with GPS, mobile check printing, estimating software and a personal device that incorporates both phone and data capabilities.

According to Senior Planning Consultant Keith Heindl, the claims department at Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co. is far and away the biggest user of mobile technology. It is also essentially on par with Pauli's barometer. Claims personnel have anytime/anywhere access to the network, which allows them to tap into data whenever necessary. Allstate's IT department is the company's second-largest user of mobile technology.

"Mobility allows our IT personnel to extend their day, serve our end-users more promptly and add additional work/life balance to their workday," says Heindl.

Both Allstate's claims and IT workers use Blackberrys, which are used both for e-mail and GPS functionality to locate facilities and transport clients. Laptops with air cards that connect to cellular networks are standard. The company also employs a software client that allows employees to securely establish their remote connections.

At The Hartford, account executives are the primary users of its mobile computing platform. Believing that mobile technology is a major differentiator for the Hartford, Conn.-based company, Mark Esposito, CIO, Individual Life Division, says mobile technology is critical for the account executives since they need the right tools to continually improve their service levels.

"Some of the capabilities that we're offering in our mobility strategy range from access to the (customer relationship management platform) and access to pending cases (i.e. when [account executives] are out on a call, they can see what's in inventory, as well as other business applications that are on the platform)," he says. "We also believe that the platform allows us to work as an integrated sales and servicing team. As the account executives are out, they're able to keep in touch with home office support."

To do this currently, the company primarily provides service through Blackberrys and software from Waltham, Mass.-based Pyxis Mobile Inc. Esposito expects that by the end of the year, the account execs will begin to use tablets, which he believes will become their primary tool because of handwriting recognition applications, leaving the Blackberry as a secondary device.

WHAT'S IN STORE?

Virtually all insurance professionals currently have a smart phone or PDA that can affect some measure of productivity while on the go, but continual advancements to wireless connectivity and other mobile devices require constant monitoring. Service providers such as AT&T and Avaya Inc. offer packages that combine a host of options that will enable connectivity and additional solutions for carriers of all sizes.

One of the developments insurers should keep tabs on is the upcoming availability of a technology that can expand wireless connectivity over long distances. WiMAX, a telecommunication technology designed to accomplish this goal, is at the top of the list for Allstate.

"We are looking forward to enabling mobile WiMAX," says Heindl. "I believe it will give us better performance, and also greater range and coverage. We expect to pilot this once it becomes commercially available."

Allstate is also monitoring developments around 802.11n, a forthcoming change to the IEEE 802.11wireless standard that allows devices such as laptops or cell phones to join a wireless LAN.

"Today, we have the ability to move significant amounts of data, but it's relegated primarily to data alone," he says. "In the future, we'll look to converge our networks to reduce complexity and reduce our cost models. In order to do that, we believe we need to add more bandwidth, and 802.11n has the promise of doing that for us."

Ultra-mobile PCs are another useful technology that, despite being readily available, insurers haven't yet adopted on a major scale.

"Something that's out there and relatively new that hasn't gained traction yet are ultra-mobile devices-they're halfway between a laptop and a PDA," says TowerGroup's Pauli. "They fix some of the problems inherent in a regular laptop. For example, a regular laptop does not work well in direct sunlight. These ultra-mobiles have backlit screens so you can see them in the sun. They also have better batteries, easy-to-hold grips, work with a stylus and have full, functioning keyboards. So far, the insurance industry hasn't grabbed onto them, but they really need to."

OFFICES ANYWHERE, EVERYWHERE

The concept of the mobile office appears to mean different things across divergent areas of a carrier's business. While some insurers may only need a smart phone and a briefcase to comprise the entirety of a mobile office, others are deploying vehicles equipped with the latest technology to serve as a fully functioning traveling headquarters.

Account executives at The Hartford are based out of sales offices in different locations, but are on the road regularly as part of their sales process. Despite the constant travel, Esposito says a smart phone and laptop or tablet is all that's really necessary to store and access information to best serve their customers.

Given the nature of its business, things are different for Allstate, which has a fleet of mobile response unit vehicles they can deploy in times of need. These vehicles are able to drive into disaster areas and serve customers where the catastrophe occurred.

"We truly have mobile offices-they're customized RVs, which are equipped with a multitude of different technologies," Heindl explains. "When a disaster is declared, whether it is a mid-level disaster or major catastrophe, we're able roll the RVs right into the disaster zone and connect to a satellite link that connects the mobile office back into our network. At the same time, we've enabled local Wi-Fi access from the RV to allow people to wirelessly handle claims and transfer the data via satellite to the back office."

But, like The Hartford, Allstate concurs that a phone and laptop with a cellular air card is all that's needed for a mobile office.

"Our employees can essentially work anywhere as long as there is a broadband or cellular connection, and it appears as though they're working from their office," Heindl says. "In that case, we've created a virtual mobile office."

INSURERS ENSURE SECURE

Insurers biggest fear regarding mobile technology is the security of the information, both what's stored on the device itself, and when traveling wirelessly to and from the network. Fortunately, there are numerous ways to keep both the devices and information secure.

Security is exceedingly important at Allstate. Serving 17 million customers nationwide, security is its main focus for all of its mobile solutions.

"We use network encryption, including both IPSEC and SSL to encrypt data, which ensures we are protected while the data is in flight across the network," Heindl says. "We also use identity authentication, making sure that whoever is logging in is actually the person it's supposed to be."

From the application layer out, San Antonio, Texas-based AT&T provides encryption at each consecutive level of service. Additional layers of encryption are provided at the transmission level over the network, where the company's wireless Communication Manager software compliments the customer's existing virtual private network (VPN).

"Communication Manager allows wireless connectivity for laptops and interfaces with compatible VPN options," says Mirelle Gotsis, director, industry solutions for AT&T. "There's also Motion Wireless, a wireless VPN solution for people who travel in and out of network coverage areas. Designed for Windows-based laptops and most handheld devices, it provides an encrypted tunnel for information, and has a suspension feature for when coverage is lost that keeps the application in suspension so when coverage is regained, the user doesn't have to reboot or re-VPN."

But in the end, TowerGroup's Pauli feels the best security feature of all is plain old common sense. "Carriers need to realize that just because they can send information to a handheld device, maybe they shouldn't," she says. "They need to focus on sending only what is needed to do the job. It's bringing good sense to the process along with bringing the capabilities of current security."

SOME SLOWER TO ADAPT

While everyone stands to benefit from mobile technology, adoption varies widely among different sectors of the industry.

Major insurers are among the earliest adopters. The Hartford's Esposito notes that he hasn't seen older agents hesitate to adopt new the technology. Instead, he finds that transition and adoption of mobile technology is more up to the individual.

Pauli finds that independent adjusters are using mobile technology most, but that mass adoption is still slow to catch on, especially among agents.

"The independent agents should be using mobile technology but so far, with the exception of a few leading agents, they haven't gotten the message," she says. "Producers in the field should have application-gathering information on a tablet or laptop, but most of them are not doing that at this point in time. They really haven't gotten the technology message yet."

Still reliant on traditional methodologies, Pauli finds agents reluctant to jump the curve and use technology for their own benefit.

"Independent agents, and agents in general," she says, "still tend to live by the saying, 'We've always done it this way.' Because most producers in the field are over 50, they're not technology-prone. It's a bit of a management crisis right now. The agency principals and owners need to enforce technology adoption and not let their people get away with not using it."

Regardless of the speed of adoption, Pauli warns that agents who are not using leading-edge mobile technology to provide the services their customers want 24/7, regardless of location, will lose their customer base to agents who are.

"The agents who do have technology supporting their agency infrastructure-fully functioning portals - it brings customers over. It's going to force the hand of agents who don't adopt, because those agents will be losing market share to the agents who have it," she says.

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