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The Emerging Wireless World

Wireless may not yet live up to the hype, but many insurers are steadily moving wireless strategies off the drawing board and into the competitive arena.

Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, insurance professionals in all lines of business will be able to access back-office systems at any time, from anywhere, at blazing speeds. The hype that has accompanied the advent of wireless business communications has by now provoked a good deal of cynicism about such visions, which seem little more plausible than the flying cars of "The Jetsons." Still, the state of wireless technology today is capable of providing significant competitive advantage to companies that invest in it.

Precisely because wireless technology isn't yet where it might be, many insurers balk at wireless initiatives. That's a mistake, according to Chad Hersch, a New York-based analyst with Celent Communications. Wireless offers an array of communication protocols and hardware devices that can be of great use today, he says. The trick is to match the capabilities of existing wireless technologies to the opportunity areas of a given insurer's business. To ensure success, Hersch advises companies to begin with internal experiments, followed by field trials. Given the disruptive nature of implementing the technology, Hersch recommends that it be rolled out in steps. "A phased rollout allows for constant refinement of the implementation process, the devices and the applications, and allows a carrier to provide more support to field personnel during the rollout," he says.

P&C field claims operations continue to show relatively high adoption rates for wireless owing to the relative ease of extracting value from limited capability, according to Hersch. "There's enough value there because they can settle for good-enough connection speeds to the Internet or corporate network," he says. That generally means cellular telephony-related technologies, including GPRS (general packet radio service) modem, which allows cellular transmission of IP packet flows. "The reason they use these technologies is that they cover a very wide area, which is obviously critical since you don't know where your claims people are going to be," Hersch adds.

Tracking and communicating with field claims personnel via GPRS forms a critical part of The Hartford's (Hartford, $237.3 billion in assets) Claim Expediter. Rolled out nationwide in June, the system is built on a customized version of CCC Information Services (Chicago) Autoverse product, which is integrated with an in-house developed e-dispatch system to create a seamless interface among the carrier's claim handlers, body shop networks, and captive and independent field appraisers.

When a Hartford customer calls with a claim, a customer care representative will match an estimating source to the customer's location by ZIP code. The relevant details are sent electronically to CCC, which in turn sends them wirelessly to The Hartford's appraisers. "It's conceivable that within five minutes of the customer calling in the loss, our appraisers have that assignment on their wireless laptops," says Marty Iverson, VP, auto physical damage, The Hartford. "When they go out and see the vehicle, they write the estimate on-site, they take digital images, and upon completion, they send that information wirelessly back to [CCC], which transports it back to our front-end claims handlers' desktops within minutes."

The field appraisers use Panasonic (Secaucus, N.J.) CF29 ruggedized laptops, equipped with GPRS modems and Bluetooth personal area network (PAN) technology. The laptops run CCC's Pathways appraisal and total loss software and PDI digital imaging software, as well as the vendor's Wireless Direct, which ensures unbroken two-way communications, even if the stream is stopped due to a coverage interruption. The Hartford's captive appraisers can receive new assignments at any time via their connection to the Verizon Communications (New York) network. Iverson says the carrier will experiment with Bluetooth technology later this year for enabling appraisers to communicate between their laptops and personal printers to further expedite printing checks, estimates and total loss evaluations for customers on-site.

New Paradigm

While the implementation of Claim Expediter is yet to be measured, a pilot demonstrated a one-third reduction in cycle time, a reduction of rentals by 1.1 days and a 2.1-day improvement to move a total loss, Iverson reports. "We had a culture of settling claims in days; with this technology we've seen real-life examples of settling claims within hours," he says. "We're really changing our paradigm: Now, every hour, every minute, every second counts."

Allstate ($90.7 billion in assets) is pursuing adoption of a similar paradigm, judging by its range of wireless initiatives. It's also demonstrating an eclectic approach to matching business cases to needs. The carrier has equipped about 1,900 of its field adjusters with Sierra (Richmond, British Columbia) 550 wireless modems integrated into the carrier's standard IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) ThinkPad laptop, according to David St. Clair, operations director of the insurer's department of infrastructure. Using a dialer interface, adjusters link up to the carrier's Work Flow Management System, based on ServicePower (Annapolis, Md.) technology, via Sprint PCS' (Overland Park, Kan.) cellular network.

Allstate uses AT&T's (Basking Ridge, N.J.) GPRS network to connect a small number of executives with Research In Motion (Waterloo, Ontario) BlackBerry 6280 all-in-one handheld units. The devices' functionality includes messaging, paging, task notes, calendar, e-mail with attachment and cell phone capabilities.

The carrier also employs satellite Internet technology for its mobile response units (MRUs), which are vans that are dispatched to catastrophe areas, such as those struck by hurricanes or wildfires. The insurer has three MRUs, each equipped with eight wired connections with VPN security, allowing multiple adjusters to communicate via IP with the back office in situations where cellular communications may be impossible. "Satellite bandwidth is obviously not the least-expensive option, but it's a matter of finding a solution that meets the needs of a given situation," comments Gary Bullock, project manager, network solutions, Allstate.

In the carrier's Northbrook, Ill., home office and surrounding campus, about 1,300 users have wireless local area network (LAN) access. Allstate is also experimenting with wireless MAN (metropolitan area network), which broadcasts a line-of-sight 802.11.a LAN wireless protocol beam between buildings.

St. Clair says Allstate's various wireless endeavors seek to maximize productivity with the most cost-effective technology available. "We have to keep exploring what's possible, what's next, while at the same time making sure we don't build one-off solutions," he says.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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