Talkin’ ’bout next generation

Flexibility is the trademark of next-generation wireless. Sprint’s PPC6700, for example, combines three wireless networks in one PDA device: 3G, Wi-Fi and 1xRTT.

Several providers of onboard computing and mobile communications recently have rolled out – or at least announced plans for – their “next generation” platforms. But other than some vague description of a product upgrade, what exactly does “next generation” mean?

Along with new hardware and software designs and applications, the latest platforms ride on the coattails of advances in wireless networks. On one hand, the “next generation” represents an evolution for capturing data, reporting information and improving business processes. But some say a revolution also is under way, with applications coming soon that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible.

Before jumping on any next-generation bandwagon, savvy fleet managers should find solid proof that moving to a new platform will exceed the return on investment (ROI) of their current solution. After all, if their current solution already performs as expected, why change?

Generation gaps
One of the forces driving development of these next-generation platforms is the growth in speed and coverage of wide-area cellular networks. Satellite has been available since the late 1980s. But cellular has evolved from analog (AMPS) to digital, a move that signaled the second generation (2G), which comes in three varieties – GSM, CDMA and iDEN. Data extension capabilities of those formats – GPRS, 1xRTT and WiDEN, respectively – added more speed to their wireless spectrums.

Now, the third generation (3G) of cellular has arrived in many metropolitan areas, bringing with it a new set of technology acronyms such as Verizon’s EV-DO – an extension for its CDMA network – and Cingular’s EDGE for GSM.

For comparison purposes, the typical rate of satellite transmission is 0.3 kilobytes per second (kbps), 9.6 kbps for AMPS, and between 144 and 180 kbps for digital cellular, says Brian McLaughlin, vice president of marketing for PeopleNet Communications. High-speed 3G networks such as EV-DO average 400-700 kbps and are capable of reaching up to 2 megabytes per second (Mbps) – speeds that compare to a broadband cable connection.

Satellite also is on the verge of a speed breakthrough. For example, in the second half of 2006, Qualcomm plans to release the successor to its OmniTracs platform called OmniVision. Like its predecessor, OmniVision will be satellite-based, but Qualcomm says the new platform will have “many times” the amount of bandwidth via the use of a new “millennial data modem” it developed.

The additional bandwidth will enable Qualcomm customers to do things that may otherwise be cost-prohibitive today, such as having minute-by-minute vehicle position reports or daily downloads of vehicle and engine performance data, says Norm Ellis, vice president and general manager of transportation and logistics of Qualcomm Wireless.

In the mood for multi-mode
In addition to the growth of high-speed cellular and satellite networks, Wi-Fi – or the 802.11 wireless standard – continues to find more popularity for local-area wireless networking. Wi-Fi can reach connection speeds up to 54 Mbps with a range of about 300 feet.

But for many businesses looking to connect mobile devices to their company’s network, it’s not the speed of Wi-Fi that matters the most: In some applications, it can lower the costs of using wide-area cellular and satellite networks.

“What I am seeing with some customers is an appetite for multi-mode going forth,” says John Moscatelli, director of national sales for Sprint, which recently merged with Nextel.

For example, some fleets utilize Wi-Fi to download a truck’s daily run as it approaches a yard or dock. When the trucks leave the yard, they utilize a wide-area cellular network to report exceptions, such as a late delivery or damaged goods. For trucks that are out of total coverage and without a viable store-and-forward option, some fleets want the option to switch to satellite communications.

“That’s where it is going,” Moscatelli says. “I have not seen a great deal of need from customers for high speed.” In order to have applications onboard the vehicle that actually would require high speeds, Wi-Fi may be the best option for the foreseeable future.

Qualcomm’s Ellis says that soon after the initial release of OmniVision, his company plans to offer an option to use an 802.11 local-area network connection between the in-cab device and the office. For a vehicle stationed at a company terminal, fleets could download interactive training courses to OmniVision, which will have a full-color display screen. Rather than training a driver in a classroom, which counts against his driving hours, a driver could complete the courses during his downtime.

“Connecting the driver closer to the enterprise and his peers is an advantage to carriers,” Ellis says. “To make the driver feel more part of the company, to share in spirit, and receive safety updates from safety directors will add a lot of value.”

Absent a sudden demand for media-rich applications such as training or video conferencing, Wi-Fi will not be necessary to support most future wireless needs of carriers, according to PeopleNet’s McLaughlin. PeopleNet’s new g3 platform, which was released last year, quickly can download or upload large data files when vehicles are within range of a digital network. The g3 uses digital wireless networks, including 3G, where available.

The onboard unit for g3 includes a USB port that could be used to add a Wi-Fi antenna, but McLaughlin says PeopleNet doesn’t plan to develop an application that uses Wi-Fi. Early next year, however, the company will release an “API” or application programming interface called g3 Services that will allow its customers and third-party providers to develop products that can communicate with the g3 computer through Wi-Fi using the USB port.

Advanced handheld devices – such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and mobile computers – have multiple connectivity options, such as Wi-Fi and digital cellular. Shrinking prices for these devices have enabled carriers to leverage their existing investments in in-cab systems while providing mobility to their drivers. For example, Intermec’s CN2 mobile computer offers the same functionality and ruggedness of terminals that are larger and more costly, says Kevin Moore, senior business development manager of transportation and logistics for Intermec.

More options, more vendors
The need for hardware devices to support both high-speed local-area and wide-area networks may not be necessary for long-haul trucking applications. Coverage is the key for wireless solutions in this market, but now carriers can have the best of both worlds. A growing number of vendors offer dual mode platforms that support digital cellular and either satellite or analog to ensure coverage where high-speed digital cellular is not available.

GeoLogic Solutions was the first provider to offer a multi-mode satellite and terrestrial solution to the industry. Until recently, the company used the Ardis cellular network for terrestrial coverage, which offered speeds of 4.8 kbps, according to the Ardis website.

This fall, GeoLogic began to offer customers the option to use Cingular’s GSM/GPRS as the default terrestrial network for its MobileMax system. For MobileMax units already in the field, customers can install a new modem to the in-cab device that is slightly bigger than a cigarette package. “It’s a very simple upgrade,” says John Lewis, GeoLogic’s president and chief executive officer.

By using the Cingular network, fleets can get information to and from the truck faster – in a few seconds – for more real-time monitoring and managing of their fleet; for most operations, the Cingular network is used 80 to 90 percent of the time. “What (customers) care about is message speed,” Lewis says.

Southeastern Freight Lines is the first GeoLogic customer to use the new Cingular network. “In the few weeks we’ve been using the Cingular network, we have been pleased with the speed in which messages are transmitted to and from the truck,” says Braxton Vick, the company’s senior vice president of corporate planning. “The Cingular system is living up to our expectations, and we look forward to switching the rest of our fleet over to the network.”

Last November, wireless fleet management provider Xata Corp. launched a dual-mode cellular and satellite solution. For its cellular service, the company uses Sprint’s CDMA-1xRTT network, says Tom Flies, vice president of business development for Xata.

PeopleNet also began offering dual-mode communications when it launched its g3 platform last year. Its g3 uses both analog cellular and digital cellular (CDMA). Recent software developments are pushing the limits of analog bandwidth, McLaughlin says. For example, the g3’s Onboard Event Recording application takes second-by-second data snapshots of vehicle information such as speed and braking. The application passes the information back to a server each time an event is captured.

“Digital speeds it up significantly,” McLaughlin says. “Whereas it is just data today, in the future you could pass back a photo image of what happened during an accident.”

Nearly all of PeopleNet’s customers – 98 percent of them – have made g3 their platform going forward, McLaughlin says. Shaw Transport – the private fleet for Dalton, Ga.-based carpet and flooring manufacturer Shaw Industries – upgraded its entire interplant transportation (IPLT) division with g3, says Wes Moore, IPLT operations manager.

In addition to faster bandwidth, the g3 utilizes Global Positioning System (GPS) and WAAS Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) technology, which enables near-perfect GPS accuracy, Moore says. More accurate GPS data will increase the performance of key applications used by Shaw, such as geofencing to automate data capture of drivers’ arrival and departure times from company facilities.

“Overall, the lowest cost-per-kilobyte solution available is the reason we switched to the g3 from our g2x,” Moore says. “The g2x was not limiting interplant operations. With the upgrade to the g3 units, we will continue to have the flexibility to improve our business.”

Going digital
For fleets that operate primarily in local or regional urban markets, digital cellular networks generally offer sufficient coverage, and because of competitive pricing, fleets can get wireless data plans at minimal cost.

In early 2006, Networkcar will move its wireless fleet management system from the data-only Mobitex analog network to the GSM/GPRS network. In addition to increasing coverage, use of the all-digital network will enable Networkcar to enhance its current vehicle monitoring applications: A fleet could download complete diagnostic data – a “freeze frame” – from a vehicle’s engine. A technician then could perform a diagnostics test remotely, says Ryan Glancy, director of business development for Networkcar.

But some onboard computing platforms leave the choice of digital networks up to the customer. Cadec Corp.’s customers – mainly private fleets – like this option because it allows them to leverage their corporate contracts with providers such as Sprint or Verizon to get discounts for other wireless needs, says Tom Lemke, executive vice president of Cadec.

If your operations fit within the coverage area of digital cellular, more options are becoming available as well. One advantage for Sprint customers is that they can leverage a variety of digital wireless networks with one device, says Lou Granberry, director of transportation for Sprint. For example, its recently launched PPC6700 is an EV-DO-capable Windows mobile device with embedded Wi-Fi capability. The PDA device automatically will use the 3G network and Sprint Wi-Fi spots where available, and the 1xRTT network when not available.

Sprint is working with development partners to offer new applications to the transportation industry that run on Sprint’s high-speed CDMA network. Before the merger, many developers focused on Nextel’s iDEN network, says Mary Foltz, Sprint’s director of product management and development for location and mobility services.

Phoenix-based Camping Companies Inc. (CCI) is a tow-truck operator that specializes in auto repossession work. The company uses a software application called Re-Pros that runs on Panasonic laptops using Sprint’s wireless network: Instead of drivers having to come into the office to get their job assignments, they can access files remotely, such as reviewing original faxes to CCI from auto lien holders – typically banks and lenders. They also can download and print the documents from portable printers, or scan-in delivery receipts when they deliver repossessed cars to auctions.

The system has improved driver productivity by more than 50 percent and office productivity by 30 percent, says Walt Camping, the company’s president and CEO. Since CCI’s drivers are paid a base salary and commission, the productivity gains as a result of using the Re-Pros software system have increased driver pay by more than 50 percent, he says.

Today, fleets have many options for choosing a “next-generation” wireless platform, from high-speed networks to hardware and software applications. More choice means more competition and lower costs; it also means more opportunity to use technology as a competitive advantage.