In Focus: Mobile solutions

Satellite or cellular? For years, that was a basic option fleet operators faced in choosing among mobile communications solutions. Satellite offered greater coverage but was more expensive on a per-character basis. Cellular was significantly less expensive, but coverage was spotty. Until recently, only one major wireless communications system for trucking operations, MobileMax, offered both satellite and terrestrial communications through the same device, allowing fleets to balance coverage and cost-effectiveness on a real-time basis.

The availability of multi-mode communications was the reason that TransAm Trucking recently selected MobileMax, offered by GeoLogic Solutions, says Russ McElliot, chief operating officer of the 930-truck carrier based in Olathe, Kan. MobileMax’s default mode is the less expensive terrestrial system, but it switches automatically to a satellite network when the land-based option isn’t available. McElliot estimates the multi-mode device saves between 8 and 15 percent a month on messaging costs and helps reduce the problem of urban canyons, spots in metropolitan areas where tall buildings block the satellite signal.

But MobileMax is no longer the only game in town. Xata Corp., for example, has launched a dual cellular/satellite communications solution. Xata’s latest onboard computers use a proprietary technology called SmartCom LCR that uses a “least cost” approach to routing by switching between digital cellular and satellite networks based on coverage. For cellular coverage, Xata uses CDMA 1xRTT, a third-generation digital network deployed by Verizon, Sprint and others.

Qualcomm doesn’t offer multi-mode communications on the same device, but it does offer fleets a choice of satellite- and cellular-based systems devices. And Qualcomm recently introduced OmniOne, which allows users of its longstanding OmniTracs product to extend dispatch functionality to owner-operators.

Multi-mode devices are not limited to satellite and cellular communications, however. Several providers of cellular-based fleet management systems use multi-mode devices to switch between cellular networks such as the analog AMPS standard and the newer digital GSM/GPRS and CDMA. AirIQ, which provides telematics solutions for tractors and trailers, currently uses the AMPS network with optional satellite-based communications. Its products have an intelligent messaging switch inside that makes them capable of communicating with multiple types of wireless networks.

“AirIQ will rely on the current coverage offered by the AMPS networks, and as the digital coverage becomes adequate, our customers will have the benefit of leveraging our digital solution when the timing is right,” says Daniel Seto, vice president of technology planning.

PeopleNet’s latest version of its onboard computer, released last October, uses CDMA 1xRTT and AMPS for ubiquitous coverage throughout the United States. Brian McLaughlin, PeopleNet’s vice president of marketing, says the advantage of CDMA 1xRTT is more bandwidth – 500 times that of satellite – that enables applications such as transmitting signatures, bar codes and document images.

The current footprint of the CDMA 1xRTT network is such that the PeopleNet system uses it about 40 to 50 percent of the time, McLaughlin says. While the AMPS network provides coverage in the United States and most of Canada, PeopleNet also may offer an optional satellite communications option later this year for customers who want coverage in Mexico and northern Canada.

Another form of multi-mode communications is the combination of wireless local-area networks using 802.11 standards – known as Wi-Fi – with cellular or satellite communications. The latest handheld computer models from Intermec and Symbol come with 802.11 cards integrated in the devices. Cellular networks such as GPRS, CDMA or Nextel’s iDEN can provide real-time communications between the devices and the office, and the handhelds can switch automatically to a company’s private 802.11 network when in range.

Whoever said you can’t have it both ways certainly wasn’t talking about wireless solutions. Multi-mode communications have led to benefits in wireless coverage, cost and new opportunities for application development.

Confused by the alphabet soup of wireless communications terms? Below are some key terms in wireless communications:

AMPS. Advanced Mobile Phone Service: The standard for analog cellular telephones in North America that operates in the 800 MHz frequency band.

CDMA. Code Division Multiple Access: A technique of multiplexing in which analog signals are converted into digital form for transmission.

1xRTT. Sometimes referred to as CDMA2000, it is the name for the first phase in CDMA’s evolution to third-generation (3G) technology.

iDEN. Integrated Digital Enhanced Network: A specialized mobile radio network from Motorola that combines two-way radio, telephone, text messaging and data transmission.

GSM. Global System for Mobile communications: A digital cellular or PCS network used throughout the world.

GPRS. General Packet Radio Service: part of the GSM standard and delivers “always-on” wireless packet data services to GSM customers.

802.11. A family of specifications for wireless local area networks (WLANs) developed by a working group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).