RealTime IT News

Unwired Realty in the Islands

The notion that wirelessness in and of itself delivers strategic benefits may sound like part of a tail-wagging-the-dog style pitch from a wireless equipment vendor or service provider. Not many enterprises would buy it.

Hawaii HomeLoan (HHL), a year-old Honolulu-based mortgage banking operation, would, though. In fact, HHL could be the poster child for wireless communications.

Its sales employees -- 50 of the firm's total of 88 -- use only cell phones. They don't have land lines. They all work on laptops linked in a Wi-Fi wireless LAN in the office.

All the firm's core software applications are Web based. They can access them wherever they go. Out of the office, they use Sprint PCS connection cards to access the Internet over the cellular network, or other companies' Wi-Fi networks, or commercial Wi-Fi hotspots.

"It's what makes us unique -- our ability to launch the company entirely wirelessly," says senior vice president Leonard Loventhal.

Whether it's that uniqueness or other factors, Hawaii HomeLoan has seen remarkable success in its short life. It posted $7 million in revenues and funded $550 million in loans last year. "Half-a-billion dollars in the first year -- that's pretty good for a start-up," Loventhal says.

The decision to go wireless was made right at the outset by the company's founders, who like Loventhal and most of the other key management staff moved over from Bank of Hawaii. The wireless decision was an easy one to make, he says.

At their old employer, most of them had cell phones, office phones, toll-free numbers and pagers to keep track of. "You see people now with six numbers on their business cards," Loventhal says. "It's a burden, it's a pain."

At HHL they have one number and one voice mail to check. They can use the phones anywhere in the state, including at home and in the office. If a call does come in on one of the firm's handful of land lines, the receptionist can transfer it to a cell phone as if it were an extension.

"It's a subtle thing maybe, but you see loan officers walking around the office, talking to people on the phone. We have an always-on staff," Loventhal says. "Which is great -- it means we can be productive at all times."

The wireless data technology gives the company's employees more of the same kind of flexibility. In the office, they can continue to field e-mail and do other work while they're in colleagues' offices or a conference room.

Century Computers, a Honolulu-based systems integrator and outsourcer, designed and implemented the network, sourced the hardware -- including state-of-the-art Compaq laptops with built-in Wi-Fi -- and provides all of HHL's computing services.

The WLAN at the company's Honolulu headquarters includes three Compaq WL510 access points to cover the 10,500 square-foot office. They support from 10 to 50 users at any one time and could support up to 70. The local LAN connections are via Cisco 2950C 24 port switches.

A separate 2,000-square-foot satellite office on the island of Maui uses a consumer-grade Wi-Fi router.

The firm's Internet connection and services are through Century and its Web servers are co-located at Century's cross-town data center. A 100-Mbps 5.8GHz link provides the main connectivity between the two offices. A DSL connection provides backup.

Employees carry out most of HHL's core business processes -- loan applications and agreements, CRM functions, interfaces with partners -- using a highly integrated Web-based mortgage industry program from Honolulu-based PCLender.com Inc. Even HHL's e-mail system is browser based.

"We're 100-percent Web based," Loventhal says. "No Internet, no work. We've subscribed to it 100 percent, we live by it -- and so far it's been pretty good."

The advantage is that sales employees and loan officers can do business virtually anywhere they go -- wirelessly.

HHL is a promoter of Wi-Fi within its industry. It has convinced one real estate company partner to install a Wi-Fi WLAN so that when HHL's employees visit they can continue to connect at high speed. It hopes to convince more to do the same, but the "real estate industry is slow to adapt to new technology," Loventhal says.

There are a few Wi-Fi hotspots in Honolulu, but only very few. Away from the office, HHLers are more apt to connect via Sprint PCS, which delivers connection speeds from 75 to 125 Kbps, Loventhal says.

"We're watching the battle between Wi-Fi hotspots and PCS very carefully," he says. "Until [more Wi-Fi hotspots] show up, we'll use what we can. We'd like to see convergence -- or we'd like to see Sprint get faster, which is what they say they'll do with the network."

He'd like to see Sprint get fast enough that employees can use it to run applications over the Net when they're with clients. The PCS connection is too slow for that now.

Loventhal may get exactly what he wants, of course. Sprint and other cellular carriers are considering setting up converged Wi-Fi/PCS networks that would allow users to roam from one network to the other without having to think about which they're using.

It will take time, though, and, as Loventhal implies, it's by no means clear which will come first -- ubiquitous Wi-Fi hotspots or 3G wide area networks with broadband speeds. Either way, innovative all-wireless companies like Hawaii HomeLoans will be ready to exploit them.