Talking still beats typing

A new generation of personal information managers is helping to revolutionize the way buildings get constructed

May 01, 2003 |

Personal information managers, or PIMs — those push-button or touchscreen pocket organizers, such as the Palm Pilot and Pocket PC — have grown to attract legions of fans and users. But the real handheld technology revolution in construction started about a decade ago in a lab in Schaumburg, Ill., where Motorola and Reston, Va.-based Nextel Communications first tested Direct Connect, the powerful long-range walkie-talkie service.

At much lower cost than cellular rates, this feature allows users to instantly contact other Nextel users, in less than a second. This technology has changed the way contractors communicate, both on and off the job site. "The construction industry was among the first to see the value of this tool for instant communication across hundreds of miles," said Daryl Newman, VP/construction at Nextel.

According to Cheryl Hawkins, a public relations manager at Nextel:

  • More than 150 million Direct Connect calls are made daily.

  • More than 62 billion Direct Connect calls were made in 2002, up from 50 billion in 2001.

  • The average Direct Connect call lasts 40 seconds, compared with almost two minutes for the average cellular call.

  • Direct Connect calls make up nearly 70% of the total calls on the network.

  • More than 94% of Nextel customers use Direct Connect.

While long restricted to local markets, big changes for the walkie-talkie service are in the works. Nextel is taking it nationwide in two phases. The first phase, which allows Nextel users to travel with the Direct Connect service and instantly connect with anyone local to the area to which they have traveled or with any other Nextel customers who have traveled with them, was announced in January.

The second phase will allow all Nextel customers to connect with one another anywhere on Nextel's national network regardless of the sender's or receiver's location. With coverage in 197 of the top 200 US markets, complete implementation of coast-to-coast Nationwide Direct Connect is expected to be available in the third quarter of this year.

Averting the permit roadblock

As in the case of PIMs, new computer languages and chips have transformed the Nextel phone in recent years. Once just a voice device, now it's fitted with wireless access to data networks and corporate e-mail. Phones have Internet capabilities, as well as the ability to run Java-enabled business applications.

The most recent applications for the construction industry use the phone as a terminal, enabling you to send and receive small amounts of data that are key to the construction process.

In March, Nextel and Chicago-based ConstructWorks announced the availability of two services, PermitWorks and CityConnect, a wireless tool-set for managing building permit requirements.

PermitWorks provides access to a nationwide help desk staffed by experienced permit specialists who serve as a resource to contractors trying to manage their permit requirements, thus shortening the time it takes to get permits processed.

"Managing the building permit problem is considered a major headache in the construction industry," said Newman.

CityConnect offers a specialized directory of hard-to-find contact information on local municipal building officials in more than 3,000 U.S. cities. Information can be access by city name or zip code.

"Our partnership with Nextel provides construction industry team members, for the first time, the additional tools they need to manage every permit problem right from their Nextel phone," says Mike Gaynor, CEO for ConstructWorks.

For the past two years, Nextel has been partnering with Norristown, Pa.-based software developer Airput to offer a system called AirHours. Using Internet-capable Nextel phones, AirHours allows field managers to enter and review employee hours and project information, eliminating the need for paper time-sheets. The program also allows managers to view labor costs as they are incurred instead of days later, as with most paper-based systems. Instant access to this time-critical labor-cost information allows managers to react immediately to allocate labor resources and avoid cost overruns.

The newest version, AirHours 1.8, includes Time Clock, where the push of a button on a Nextel phone records when an employee begins and ends work on a specific task. AirHours calculates the total time spent on the task and can assign that time to a specific project and phase. Airhours also includes an interface to transfer employee, project, and timesheet information to QuickBooks, a popular accounting software among smaller design and construction firms. Larger firms can transfer employee and project information to Timberline Gold, another popular accounting package. Data can be also transferred to Excel or Access using ASCII text-delimited formats.

During a project, the SkyLog system from San Diego-based Pacific Datavision turns a Nextel phone into a helpful record-keeping tool. It's targeted to project managers, superintendents, inspectors, designers, and other professionals who need to communicate important details back to their offices for documentation.

Construction professionals can record RFIs, change orders, and safety inspection notes by simply pressing one button on their Nextel phone and speaking. SkyLog's time and date stamp on all voice messages acts as verification by a third party to help avoid or resolve disputes. Skylog then saves message on its servers.

Other users of the system can either log in to hear the message or be fax-notified of its creation. An optional transcription service from Pacific also allows superintendents to have their messages typed into a log and posted on a secure web page for end-of-day review.

Rough-and-tumble hardware

All the software in world won't help one bit if the hardware isn't up and running. To ensure that jobsite workers have equipment that's tough enough to survive rugged work conditions, Nextel now offers the Motorola i58sr. Designed with a focus on durability, the i58sr adheres to Military Standards 810 C/D/E for resistance to dust, shock, and vibration. It also offers a built-in speakerphone for hands-free conversation, a 250-entry phonebook, a date book, VibraCall alert, and a removable memory card for transfer of information between Motorola-designed Nextel phones.

The Motorola i58sr is Java enabled and also outfitted with a GPS internal antenna that gives you your latitude and longitude. According to Airput chairman Jim Wolsky, the next version of Airhours software will utilize GPS to automatically record your location when you clock in with your Nextel phone.

You've got mail

For those that absolutely must have more than a phone, portable e-mail devices, especially the Blackberry from Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion, have taken the business world by storm. Palm-equipped phones and phone-equipped Palms have made some waves, but what may ultimately find much more acceptance in the construction industry is the Nextel-ready Blackberry 6510 introduced in February. In addition to its Direct Connect walkie-talkie feature, it offers a phone, organizer, and wireless access to business e-mail and data. To take advantage of the e-mail features, users must subscribe to RIM's BlackBerry E-Mail Service Plan ($49.99 a month, not including a voice plan).

The $500 unit measures 1x3x4 in. thick and weighs just under 6 ounces. It includes a keyboard, a built-in wireless modem, a rechargeable lithium battery, and a microphone and headset jack.

There's the full update on the latest communication technology. Now get out there and communicate!

Matthew Phair ( is a New York-based writer who explores innovation and technology in the engineered construction process.

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