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AT&T Delivers 5,400 BlackBerrys To USPS

The Postal Service hopes that the updated smartphones will help make it more competitive with private shippers.

In one of the largest government mobile-device rollouts ever, AT&T is deploying 5,400 BlackBerry devices, equipped with specialized mobile applications, to United States Postal Service employees. The BlackBerry 8800 and 8820 models will go out to executives, IT staff, and high-level managers in the 800,000-person organization, replacing older devices that the USPS first purchased in 2001.

"This is the largest centralized federal government BlackBerry deployment we've ever done," said Chris Hill, VP of the government solutions group at AT&T's wireless unit. AT&T has also supplied the U.S. Army with tens of thousands of BlackBerrys, but those are scattered in batches at various bases across the country.

The 8800 models are being delivered now and the Wi-Fi enabled 8820s will go out in a second-phase deployment later this year, said George Wright, VP and acting CTO at the USPS.

"Over the last few years we've been breaking even in our core business," said Wright, "but now we're in this new competitive position with private shippers, and we're there to make money. It's an interesting new world, and the BlackBerrys are one way we hope to improve our productivity and compete."

The BlackBerry refresh cycle is unique in several ways, including the engraving of the USPS logo on the back of each device -- a requirement that added an extra wrinkle to the process, says Hill.

"We ship the devices to the engraver, then we take them back and stage those for shipment out to the user groups," he explained. "It's definitely [involved] multiple steps compared to your typical deployment."

Not exactly known for its innovative use of technology, the USPS is actually among a small group of federal agencies actively exploring new ways to use mobile and wireless devices to become more efficient. The new BlackBerrys will feature two specialized applications -- one off-the-shelf that was customized in-house and one built by the USPS IT department.

The first is BMC Software's Remedy help desk application, which allows IT staff to wirelessly respond to and close troubleshooting tickets. The second is an in-house "e-approver" application that enables managers to view and approve purchase orders and the like while on the go. Once the more advanced 8820 models are in the field, the USPS will field trial the delivery over Wi-Fi of brief training videos that are already being pushed out to desktops, Hill said.

The BlackBerrys are going out to 750 USPS executives plus around 5,300 operations managers and IT staff. Total cost of the deployment, including the engraving, will be around $200,000, says Wright. The Postal Service will likely eventually push mobile e-mail devices out to additional employees, he added, but "so far we have not identified the rationale."

AT&T and Verizon Wireless both bid on the BlackBerry deployment, and AT&T won on price, Wright said.

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