Mobile Data Services for Working in Rural Areas: remote GIS with iPad/iPhone

I get a lot of questions about using mobile devices in rural areas. Often they are along the lines of complaining about lack of wireless data signal and whether or not it make sense to deploy devices for users in these areas.

I’ve recently driven a lot of the rural areas in the Midwest and South regions of the United States. In many of these remote areas, gravel may be considered “an improved road”. Along the way on these drives, I field tested the GPS and wireless data capabilities of the iPhone and iPad. I also compared the GPS features of these new devices with Garmin GPSMAP76s, GPSMAP76cs, and Nuvi 255w.

In a lot of these areas where folks have anecdotally reported cell coverage as “basically non-existent”, I’ve found that you can usually locate a place to pull over and get an “Edge” connection with data speeds in the range of 14Kbps to 60Kbps. Yes, that’s a far cry from the multi-megabit services we’re coming to expect in Metropolitan/Urban communities. However, it’s not bad if you live/work in a rural area where the alternative is driving ~30 miles back to a house/office with a land line connection with service speeds ranging from 56K dialup to 256K Fractional T1.

Usually the key to getting a usable signal in these areas is to (a) slow down below 45MPH or (b) pull over to a complete stop. In urban areas, customers can often make a connection while moving 70MPH+ within 2 to 3 miles of a service provider’s tower. In a rural areas, a stationary customer can often get a lower speed connection as far out as 7 to 9 miles from the nearest tower. Continuing along the road to a higher location often helps, and GIS Professionals are usually pretty good at looking at the terrain and making educated guesses about where the signal may be a little better.

For a worker whose primary pattern of usage is large emails and very heavy web page sessions, these low speed connections may prove useless. However, for a GIS type person trying to retrieve a set of coordinates from the ESRI ArcGIS server or read the text of a simple email message, these connections could save hours of unnecessary travel.

I should also note, most of these signal/service questions come from managers and IT folks who live in more urban or metropolitan areas. I’ve found that GIS Pros, Surveyors, Engineers, and other who do field work in remote areas already understand these issues. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how much those folks doing the remote field can benefit from any wireless service which saves hours per day of driving to and from land line locations.

As for the GPS features of the iPad/iPhone vs Garmin products, the results were very positive. By using Apps and downloaded map tiles, the i devices matched almost all of the Garmin features. The geo-tagged photos and wireless data service elevated the i devices far above the Garmins for field activities like remote property inspections.

One final note on wireless data services. All regions of the country have varying levels of connectivity and service reliability. Currently, all telecommunications services in the United States have geographic gaps in coverage (this applies to wireline services as well as wireless services). As a result, anyone procuring mobile devices for a widely dispersed group of user should check the (1) service providers coverage maps, consult with target users in that area, and (3) focus on the use cases for remote field work. Metropolitan usage patterns and user expectations are significantly different than the geographically remote folks. Don’t let the metropolitan users obfuscate the benefits your organization might recieve from providing wireless data services to your field workers.

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