Because their fortunes hinge significantly on fickle Mother Nature-such as natural disasters and other weather-related occurrences-farmers are meticulous about their insurance coverage.

While they consider crop, livestock and ranch insurance a major priority, farmers often heavily rely on their agent to furnish them with specific policy details. "The informality that exists within small rural towns means the interaction between farmers and their agents is far more ongoing than it is with many other lines of insurance," exclaims Beth Puckett, senior vice president of the crop division for Cincinnati-based Great American Insurance Co.

"It's not uncommon for an agent to be in a local coffee shop where he'll run into a customer who has a policy-related question."

When these chance meetings occur, farmers often expect agents to produce instant answers to three commonly asked questions: How much is owed on a premium? When is it due? And when will a claim be settled? says Puckett, whose division writes multiple peril crop insurance (MPCI), farm & ranch and equine coverage.

To help agents provide better answers to questions, Great American's crop division this spring launched a Web-enabled wireless communication program dubbed AgLite.

"With a wireless device in tow, an agent doesn't have to phone the home office or travel back to his office to look up account data. They can access it while in the field and then distribute it to the policyholder," Puckett explains.

A small fraction

Great American's wireless program represents a small fraction of carriers that have developed Web-enabled wireless application protocol (WAP) technology for both internal and external uses.

Externally, wireless programs enable consumers to obtain quotes, check on claims and other policy matters. After developing a WAP technology last September, Mayfield Village, Ohio-based Progressive Insurance Co. this past winter executed its first live customer transaction. Using a Web-enabled Palm VII Personal Digital Assistance (PDA) device, a customer is able to download an application from the carrier's personal.progressive.com extranet site to pay a premium wirelessly.

Internally, the technology enables agents, claims adjusters and other business affiliates to enhance their workflow to better serve customers.

But hold the phone. Although the advent of wireless technology appears to have significant potential, skeptics state that overall functionality is limited, and that could stall penetration throughout the industry.

The expansion of wireless technology spawns other concerns. Cell phones are now being equipped with location-identifying capabilities, which is viewed by some as an invasion of privacy.

"There are only a small percentage of carriers who are leveraging their technology to develop mobile applications on both the acquisition and service side of business," says James Luscombe, an analyst specializing in agency automation for New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"Many of these leaders began with a first wave, which was announcing their intentions," he says. "The second wave was the rollout. In many cases, the two waves took up to 18 months from idea to rollout. In the future, this turnaround time will be no more than six months from idea to rollout."

A reasonable cost profile, unit portability and ability to better serve customers were all reasons that motivated Great American to originally offer a wireless program to 50 of its 1,000 crop insurance agents.

Going mobile

Great American executives say AgLite was sparked by two critical trends. First, the competitive nature of crop insurance has placed an added premium on customer service. "Agents need to get out in the field to network with customers," notes Puckett. "AgLite frees them from internal administrative duties."

Also, crop insurance carriers are prohibited from setting prices on policies-the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets them. "Because we can't build business based on price, we have to offer our customers more value-added service, such as wireless technology," Puckett says.

AgLite was inspired by a program called AgLink, which was launched in 1998.

As part of the program, Great American developed a Web site, www.myagritrust.com, which was designed to enable farmers to check policy terms, review claim status, receive a quote and locate an agent.

After debuting AgLink, Great American realized that a wireless program could be a perfect complement to the Internet property. Within AgLite, agents can deploy a cell phone, PDA, WinCE or other wireless instrument to connect to Great American's central database via the Internet, intranet or extranet. Once connected, they can access data about a policyholder's account.

"Because it was our first foray in this space, we set the boundaries for AgLite to enable agents to only be able to look up policy and claims data," Puckett says.

Although the functionality of AgLite is limited, agents get a great deal of mileage out of it, says Puckett. When Great American agents want to review an account, they use the keypad on their cell phone to scroll to a bookmarking queue.

Pulling up www.myagritrust.com, agents enter into a password-protected, secure area where they can connect to a database that stores policy information.

Through Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Extensible Stylesheet Language (XSL) developed by St. Louis-based Asynchrony Solutions Inc., agents can access data in real time no matter what hand-held device they use, Puckett explains. XML provides a middleware stream that enables an agent using a Palm VII, for instance, to log a data request to the central database and have it instantly returned. Stylesheets are required to format-or package-data requests to conform to the type of device an agent uses.

Most Great American agents use cell phones to communicate with a branch office. "Cell phones are compact, but there are limitations to retrieving and viewing data since the screen on a Web-enabled cell phone is so small," Puckett explains. "Knowing this, agents only access mission-critical policyholder data, such as coverage terms and declarations."

Is bigger better?

Although some carriers say they can live with the limitations of hand-held wireless devices, others endorse a belief that bigger is better.

At many companies, cell phones are still regarded as basic two-way communication tools. Palm devices, meanwhile, have garnered a reputation for having increased functionality.

Indicating the scalability of PDA devices, DWL Inc., a Toronto-based e-solutions company, e-business consultant Accenture and Sun Microsystems Inc., recently formed a joint venture that delivers real-time mobile solutions using hand-held computers from Palm Inc.

Supported by the Palm OS platform, an adjuster can review and update existing information in a carrier's claims database, states Marilyn Cresswell, director of product management for DWL. With this technology, the adjuster could then be dispatched to an accident scene and, with the hand-held device and a real-time connection to a carrier's database, quickly verify the accident and claim information.

While Palm devices are making inroads, a cluster of carriers still regard wireless Web-enabled laptop computers as optimally combining portability with the functionality of a desktop system.

The claims division at Progressive Insurance Co., Mayfield Village, Ohio, equipped its adjusters with laptop computers in 1997 to perform accident-scene analysis in the field-with smashing results.

"With just a couple clicks, all the data that an adjuster needs is at their fingertips," says Tom Moore, technology rollout manager, claims, for Progressive. "Our goal is to use wireless laptops with damage estimation software, so that a claims field person can determine damage incurred in an accident, transmit a report back to a branch office, and then use a laser printer to issue a draft (claims payment) on the spot."

Throughout the United States, Progressive has about 1,500 roving adjusters who take calls on their cell phones from a branch office, then travel to accident scenes, Moore says. For Progressive, the laptop units-most of which have 6-10 gigabyte hard-drive capacity-will continue to be the wireless device of choice.

"Our people key in a lot of data when writing a report, and a laptop with a wireless modem is the most effective application to quickly process a claim," Moore says.

After logging into the network, an adjuster can connect with a claims database that stores policy information. Launching damage estimation software, the adjuster can then pinpoint vehicle damage. With the report complete, the adjuster transmits the report back to a claims office, receives approval and issues a check.

Other carriers are also finding laptops to be an invaluable resource for their field representatives. David Laughton, claims project manager for Madison, N.J.-based property/casualty insurer Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co., has equipped 40 of the company's claims field experts with Dell Pentium III laptops. Costing about $3,500 per unit, the Web-enabled machines are supported by damage estimation software and digital cameras so an adjuster can get to the heart of a claim quickly.

Developed by Scene Genesis Inc., a Rochester, N.Y.-based software technology company, the process Atlantic Mutual uses is a Web-based system called Sceneaccess.net, which enables field personnel to compile, transmit and store scene information such as photos, reports and estimates. Available on the Web at www.sceneaccess.net and supported by XML middleware, the service provides all parties involved in the claim access to one central file.

Laptop efficiencies

From the scene, an insurance adjuster can transmit e-mail with a link to the documentation and the photos accessed at the Web site, eliminating long download times for large photo files.

"We have found laptops to have the right blend of functionality and compactability for our needs," Laughton says. "It's hard to put a dollar figure on the savings to convert what once had been a manual process to an electronic process. But just on film development costs alone, we're saving $100,000-plus a year, not to mention what we're saving on the elimination of overnight shipping expenses."

Atlantic Mutual is sold on the efficiencies of laptops to improve its workflow capabilities. As such, the carrier is not in a hurry to implement "the latest wireless gadgets" that are emerging on the market, Laughton says.

One is the newest "next-generation" device that melds the best qualities of a cell phone with that of a Palm OS. San Diego-based Kyocera Wireless Corp. recently launched a "smartphone," an all-in-one device that enables an agent to avoid carrying a pager, cell phone and PDA.

Unlike Palm VII devices, cell phones don't have the capability of offering such features as an address and date book or memo pad. The smartphone does have this capability, but costs about $500 per unit. Great American, says Puckett, is in the process of determining whether to invest in smartphones for its agents.

Considering GPS

Another technology that is being closely scrutinized by carriers such as Great American and Progressive is Global Positioning System (GPS).

"GPS has a broad application," says PWC's Luscombe. Satellite positions are used by a receiver-in this case, cell phone users-to determine their location. The technology can determine longitude, latitude, altitude and time.

So rather than having to hire a surveyor to perform a risk assessment on a property, Luscombe explains, the geographic locator embedded in the phone can immediately indicate if the property sits on a flood plain. "Knowing this, the adjuster can complete a risk assessment survey on the property much quicker," he says.

Progressive has begun piloting GPS technology aboard automobiles, tracking an auto's position 10 times an hour, according to Edward Kountz, senior analyst, mobile financial strategies, for Needham, Mass.-based TowerGroup. This enables the carrier to determine an auto customer's driving habits, such as distance and speed traveled, the time of day and week they drive, and the duration of their trip. In turn, Progressive can better pinpoint auto insurance pricing, Kountz adds.

Moore of Progressive would not comment on the company's specific use of GPS.

The one problem associated with GPS is that it could be viewed by consumers as an invasion of privacy-as if they were being watched by "Big Brother." But, as Kountz emphasized, "if it leads to lower auto rates, consumers may not object to it."

Get up to speed

Carriers have much to consider in the evolution of wireless technologies, but for now many will be pleased to see improvements made in some basic areas, such as cell phone modem speed. Cell phone modems typically run at about 19.2 kbps-far slower than the 56.2 kbps modems built into land-line desktop units.

Great American's Puckett says that voice response unit (VRU) technology used to support cell phones will greatly assist agents and adjusters by enabling them to speak a command into a phone rather than keying in the request.

The latitude of wireless options available to carriers will keep them busy over the next year or two. Although he doesn't believe carriers will be left in the dust if they fail to develop a mobile technology strategy, Luscombe says there's no doubt that some degree of mobile/wireless technology will be mandatory to support desktop systems.

Once carriers make the plunge, it will then be up to wireless technology developers to reach a higher plateau of mobile computing.

"Invariably, a wireless device, whether it be a hand-held or a laptop, takes what's available on the Web or a central database and transfers it to a wireless unit," Luscombe explains. "These developers are going to have to come up with some value-added features of wireless applications beyond just making it an extension of the Web site."

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