Will ‘Wi-Fi’ fly?

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Aaron Huff is technology editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail [email protected]

Computer technology magazines are full of articles on high-speed wireless local area networks (WLANs) using the IEEE 802.11b frequency standard. Many businesses, colleges and others use this technology – popularly known as wireless fidelity or “Wi-Fi” – to connect workstations and mobile devices to network servers. A WLAN can, for example, provide, for no additional ongoing cost, wireless access for numerous users to an Internet connection.

Some fleets use Wi-Fi technology at their terminals to extract data from their trucks’ onboard computers or to link shop computers with those in the main office. On the road, however, carriers generally use wide-area satellite, cellular and packet radio service networks to send messages, track vehicles and monitor critical data of their mobile workforce.

By its nature, Wi-Fi can’t provide seamless, nationwide communications with a mobile asset. But Wi-Fi could be useful to long-haul carriers if the access points, or “hot spots,” are located where trucks stop frequently, such as truck stops. Major truck stop chains already use WLANs for internal uses, such as sending data between the fuel islands and the fuel desk, says Richard Tisdale, chief information officer for Petro Stopping Centers. Truck stops are more cautious about deploying the WLAN infrastructure for commercial use, however.

Tisdale says that at least 50 vendors have contacted him this past year wanting to install 802.11b antennas. Some vendors, Tisdale says, have presented very good ideas for Wi-Fi applications, such as downloading large files from onboard computers and the vehicle ECMs so carriers can access the data while a truck is in transit. Or trucking companies could conduct video and audio conferences with drivers through broadband wireless networks, notes Hank Hoffman, president of SiriCOMM Inc., a Joplin, Mo.-based software company.

Other uses of WLANs at truck stops have been explored. For example, PNV was in the midst of installing 802.11b infrastructure at truck stops when it declared bankruptcy. PNV’s successor, CabPNV, so far is relying on PNV’s original concept – cable TV, Internet and telephone service through cable connections to bollards installed in truck stop parking lots.

Fleet demand, not cool technology, will drive Wi-Fi at truck stops, Tisdale says. “Truck stops aren’t going to go out there and say ‘we want a wireless system.’ The applications must be good enough for fleets to want to implement that technology.”

Anticipating future demand, NATSO, the trade association for truck stops and travel plazas, is currently working on interoperability standards for Wi-Fi through the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations, says Gene Bergoffen, a technology consultant to NATSO.

“From a technology standpoint, NATSO members want to enable common approaches between truckers and fixed sites,” Bergoffen says. “As this evolves, we hope it evolves in a way that we can standardize log-on procedures and all the protocols used with Wi-Fi under a common platform.”

Meanwhile, another vendor is taking a wired approach toward truck stop communications. IdleAire Technologies Corp. (www.idleaire.com) markets a system to eliminate idling at truck stops by providing heating, cooling and shore power to a truck cab’s window. The IdleAire service, which costs a fleet $1.25 an hour, also includes high-speed Internet, telephone and cable TV service, says Executive Vice President A.C. Wilson. In addition, Instructional Technologies Inc. (www.instructiontech.net) is offering its Tread-1 interactive driver safety-training videos through IdleAire. The ITI system allows fleets to track drivers’ progress online.

“We talked about using 802.11b for truck stops and terminals as well, but it requires an onboard computer,” says Jim Voorhees, president of ITI. “We looked at the ramp-up time of a wireless system and decided we would go with IdleAire on an exclusive basis. It would be in place faster, and they bring other things to the market as well.”

Although WLANs could deliver some of the services the IdleAire system does, the biggest financial benefit of IdleAire to fleets is idling reduction. That should be a lesson to Wi-Fi vendors. Wi-Fi may indeed be the wave of the future, but the value to fleets of specific applications – not the novelty of wireless networking – will drive commercial success.

The Wi-Fi Alliance