A need for speed?

Intertec’s Model 760 Color Mobile Computer offers wireless connectivity across three networks – cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

For several years, the telecommunications industry has been predicting a revolution in wireless technology. Slowly, it’s starting to happen. Major wireless providers are offering plans with significant breakthroughs in bandwidth. With four times the speed of current wireless services, consumers are sending digital pictures, watching streaming video and surfing the Web through wide area cellular networks operated by AT&T Wireless, Verizon, Sprint and others.

The impact of greater bandwidth of digital cellular on commercial transportation, however, is uncertain. As digital networks continue to evolve in coverage and bandwidth, the major industry providers of wireless fleet management systems are looking at the possibility of adding new fleet applications. Possibilities in the near future include capturing and sending digital photos of damaged goods or accidents; sending scanned delivery documents directly from the cab; and even video conferences with drivers.

But there are drawbacks, such as coverage. Digital cellular networks do not always meet the coverage needs of fleets, especially long-haul operations. Today, vendors often use satellite and analog cellular-based systems because of the coverage issue. In addition, advances in other information technology fields, such as onboard computing and exception management, may allow for greater functionality within today’s limited data transmissions. As it applies to trucking, expect the next generation of wireless to be an evolution, not a revolution.

Building the infrastructure
The wireless industry uses the terms 2.5G and 3G to refer to the next generation of wireless networks. Definitions of these terms are far from concrete, but the wireless industry at least agrees that the second generation (2G) of wireless networks represents the evolution from the analog cellular network to digital cellular. Analog is mostly a voice network with limited data capacity.

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2G networks are based on three digital standards to transmit voice and data. In the United States, the digital standards used by the major network carriers today are: GSM (AT&T Wireless), CDMA (Sprint and Verizon) and iDEN (Nextel). Used to describe a half step towards the next generation, 2.5G represents the data extension capabilities to the networks listed above, called GPRS, 1xRTT and WiDEN, respectively.

The definition of 3G really depends on whom you ask, but at the very least it means breakthrough speed. AT&T Wireless recently announced what it calls a 3G wireless data plan for its nationwide GSM/GPRS network. Its Edge plan has more than twice the speed of a dial-up connection at an average of 100 to 130 kilobytes per second (kps). Using the Edge network requires a network-compatible handset or a modem card. In the third quarter of 2004, Nextel plans to make its WiDEN network available nationwide. The WiDEN network essentially quadruples Nextel’s current data rates of 19.2 kps to 90 to 92 kps.

Big providers AT&T Wireless, Sprint, and Nextel will be able to offer 3G services at competitive rates before niche players in the trucking industry can, says Mark Mitchell, who directs the transportation practice of wireless software developer Enterprise Information Systems (EIS). “The install base of big cellular providers is unsurpassable in terms of momentum,” Mitchell says. EIS and many other software companies have developed transportation-specific software that runs on the Nextel network using the GPS location technology available in some Motorola phones.

The higher speed of Nextel’s new WiDEN network will allow some current applications to run more efficiently and will enable new applications, says Henry Popplewell, Nextel’s vice president of transportation and distribution.

“We find that the speed fits the applications that are out there today such as GPS directional and credit card and barcode scanning,” Popplewell says. As WiDEN becomes available, Popplewell says new applications such as document imaging and mapping programs may become available. “There are some really exciting things on the horizon.”

While few carriers use the capabilities of high-speed wireless networks today, some are planning their capital expenditures to prepare for the future. FedEx Freight, for example, moved its driver-to-office wireless communications to the GSM/GPRS network this past year, says Jeff Amerine, managing director of IT for FedEx Freight.

In 17 major metro areas, FedEx Freight uses Pocket PC-based handheld computers linked to its host computer through the GSM/GPRS network, using AT&T Wireless as its primary carrier and T-Mobile as a backup. Amerine says that the network that FedEx uses from AT&T is 2.5G, but the company is evaluating possible applications that require additional bandwidth.

“With our platform and network, we can add more applications and functions to allow for improved productivity,” Amerine says. Over the next four to five years, the device FedEx Freight selected will afford the company opportunities for enhancements, such as more information for the customer for over, short or damaged (OS&D) goods or the capability for transmitting document images and photos of the freight itself, Amerine says.

Hardware compatibility
Applications such as digital images of shipments are certainly possible today. But your ability to leverage applications as they become available may depend on the flexibility of your current hardware. With the development of wireless technology that can switch networks, or operate in multi-modes, major providers of fleet management solutions say they will be able to offer fleet customers applications that require high speed without sacrificing the coverage of satellite or analog cellular.

Aether’s MobileMax, for example, currently uses a multi-mode solution to automatically switch from cellular to satellite coverage when cellular coverage is not available. The architecture of the MobileMax system will allow fleets to use 3G networks, but “our customers need a solution to handle wide coverage spans for their critical applications: location, status of loads, and what to communicate to customers,” says Mike Brown, vice president of product marketing for Aether Systems.

“High-speed 3G networks are extremely limited in coverage, but we certainly believe there is a value in high speed for certain applications,” Brown says. “We are paying very close attention to these so that we can merge the right applications for the right customers in the future.”

Similarly, PeopleNet Communications has been waiting for 2.5 and 3G networks to evolve to the point necessary to provide customers with the quality of service they need, says Brian

A more perfect union
To get a sense of the speed of tomorrow’s wireless technology compared to
today’s, consider how many times you could transmit the text of the U.S. Constitution
in one second:

McLaughlin, vice president of marketing. PeopleNet’s Intouch g2X wireless fleet management system currently uses analog cellular. PeopleNet’s next generation product, which McLaughlin says will be available in about six months, will have digital cellular as its primary network and analog as the secondary network.

“(Digital) is not going to give you more coverage,” McLaughlin says. “You pretty much have ubiquitous coverage with analog, but it will give you more bandwidth than today, even more messaging for the same cost,” McLaughlin says. PeopleNet’s next system will be able to use high-speed networks, where available, to provide fleet customers with more messages, more visibility and applications such as picture capability, in-cab mapping and sending drivers streaming entertainment such as videos and books, he says.

AirIQ has been interested in high-speed networks for quite some time, says Miguel Gonsalves, vice president of commercial transportation.

“Coverage is key in whether or not we would implement that sort of wireless medium with a wide area solution,” Gonsalves says. AirIQ is developing a dual-mode system, to be made available early this year, to offer its customers least-cost routing by leveraging its partnerships with separate satellite and digital wireless networks, he says.

Less need for speed
While some applications, such as those involving images, inherently require large data files, fleets may be able to accomplish other information-rich tasks without an explosion in the number of bytes. Onboard computing power and the intelligent use of data is making it easier to use less bandwidth to communicate more information.

Automated messaging offers one example of how fleets are increasing the efficiency of their mobile communications. Kinston, N.C.-based TideWater Transit uses its PeopleNet system and dispatch software from Melton Technologies to automate routine time and location reports of its tractors, says Jim Williams, operations manager of the 300-truck tank carrier.

When a driver arrives at a customer location for pick up, the location’s coordinates are pre-loaded into the base unit of its PeopleNet system through the wireless network from its dispatch software. When a driver enters the location, the PeopleNet system prompts the driver to enter a bill of lading number and the load’s weight into a form. PeopleNet only transmits a code for the data input into the form, rather than the entire text message. TideWater Transit has also eliminated routine time and location messages sent to the dispatch system by receiving alerts only when drivers are out of route or not on schedule, Williams says.

Milan Express, a 440-truck LTL carrier based in Nashville, Tenn., uses an advanced software system from Agentek on Windows CE-based Symbol handheld computers to significantly reduce the messaging costs of its satellite-based mobile communications, says Bruce Kalem, the company’s chief executive officer. Milan Express sends up to 15 daily pickup and delivery manifests to and from vehicles, including an electronic signature, over Qualcomm’s OmniTRACS.

With Agentek, Milan Express is able to shrink a complete manifest and proof of delivery with signature capture to less than 100 bytes to stay well below Qualcomm’s monthly allotment of 18,000 kilobytes per truck, says Eric Anderson, president of Agentek. To limit the data sent via satellite, the company’s entire customer master file – information on 20,000 customers – is stored in each handheld. The system sends a code to represent a customer file.

Computing power is maximizing the efficiency of data sent over wireless networks from the applications being used today. And as more bandwidth becomes available in the near future, the carriers and vendors that use it to lower costs and enable new applications likely will be those who are making the best use of what is available today.

Higher speed by satellite
A big chunk of the mobile communications taking place in trucking today doesn’t use the cellular networks at all. Even so, higher data rates are on the horizon for satellite communications as well. By leveraging the technology in CDMA telephony with its satellite-based OmniTRACS system, Qualcomm says it has successfully tested data rates of 200 times the speed of satellite today. The company hasn’t announced when the services will be available to fleet customers, but typically new breakthroughs in the wireless world follow a five-year cycle from invention to commercial availability, says Tom Doyle, vice president of business development for Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions.

Some examples of future applications that Qualcomm may incorporate into its OmniTRACS system include picture technology for an OS&D situation, or taking a picture of a signed document as opposed to traditional scanning, Doyle says.

To leverage the cost advantages of the major consumer cellular networks, Qualcomm customers can use a terrestrial-based version of its OmniTRACS solution called OmniOne, a CDMA-based system for mobile phones, Doyle says. With OmniOne, fleets can send drivers load assignments, accept/reject loads, and send shipment status updates from their dispatch software by using the same messages currently used with the OmniTRACS and OmniExpress systems. OmniOne will also soon be able to provide GPS location as well, as it becomes available on Sprint and Verizon, Doyle says.

Dozens of feet at blazing speed
Wi-Fi offers broadband at close range

By now, even the most technologically challenged executive or manager probably has heard of hotspots and Wi-Fi. At hotels, airports, coffee shops and truck stops, laptop and personal data assistant users are logging onto the Internet through wireless broadband connections

High-speed, wireless networks called “Wi-Fi” are sprouting up at truck stops. Besides an added convenience and luxury for drivers, Wi-Fi offers potential for fleet applications that only require periodic communications, such as interactive safety training courses.

based on 802.11b or 802.11g protocols. Being able to connect a laptop to a high-speed, local-area network from inside a cab in a truck stop parking lot is definitely an added convenience and luxury for the truck driver. But is there a business application for fleets?

Using Wi-Fi for asset location or other real-time, over-the-road communications is absolutely out of the question. The range of a standard hotspot is a few hundred feet at most, so a seamless Wi-Fi network would require millions of hotspots, even if all hotspots were universally accessible. But for applications that require only periodic communications, such as downloading engine or vehicle data during fuel stops, Wi-Fi has potential. Some truck stops, such as Flying J, offer their own Wi-Fi connections. Others are entering into alliances with Wi-Fi providers. Truckstop.net has lined up a network of locations through deals with Pilot, Petro, Love’s and others.

Some fleets currently use Wi-Fi at their own terminals to download data from their vehicles’ on-board computers as they enter the yard, for example. For trucks that visit company locations frequently, an 802.11b wireless network for transmitting data may make sense, says Tom Doyle, vice president of business development for Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions. If a fleet is already using digital cellular, however, the value proposition becomes very marginal to use Wi-Fi, he says. Incremental usage to send data over a cellular network is pretty inexpensive compared to outfitting systems with Wi-Fi connectivity.

Some fleets also use Wi-Fi in conjunction with a cellular- or satellite-based mobile communication system to download data from a handheld or in-vehicle computer, or directly with the office, when the computers enter a secure Wi-Fi hotspot at a terminal or dock. FedEx Freight, for example, uses handheld computers to communicate pickup and delivery information to drivers through a cellular network, but the computers automatically switch to 802.11b when they detect the presence of a Wi-Fi network as drivers enter FedEx’s terminals.

“We don’t want our devices to work on publicly available Wi-Fi because of security and control, and to make the solution more manageable,” says Jeff Amerine, managing director of information technology at FedEx Freight. “But as more free hotspots become available, we may reconsider.” A key consideration will be data security, he says.