In Focus: Wireless networking

Panasonic’s latest industrial-strength Toughbook models, the CF-19 and CF-30, have an open architecture (Windows XP), touchscreen functionality and portability to deploy a limitless number of fleet applications.

If you know anything about wireless communications, the terms “3G” and even “4G” should sound familiar. They are widely used to describe the advanced, next-generation mobile networking platforms – by Sprint, Verizon, Cingular and others – that can move data at breakthrough speeds.

In the transportation industry, these terms also have become synonymous with the latest technologies for managing mobile assets.

Before 3G gained popularity during the past year or two, some onboard technologies may have seemed ahead of their time – for example, using a PC in a truck the same way it would be used in a fully networked office environment. Now, trucks can become mobile offices and virtual nodes in a company’s IT network, thanks to the speed and nationwide coverage of 3G cellular networks, says Bill Presler, senior business development manager for Panasonic computer solutions.

“What we’ve found now is a real desire for fleets to move away from older, proprietary systems that served a single or dual purpose,” Presler says. “3G networks allow you to start using what your company needs, as opposed to simply compromising to keep the cost down.”

Panasonic’s latest industrial-strength Toughbook models, the CF-19 and CF-30, have an open architecture (Windows XP), touchscreen functionality and portability to deploy a limitless number of fleet applications, including in-cab scanning, faxing and Internet access. 3G wireless modems are integrated into the Toughbook and covered under Panasonic’s standard three-year warranty.

For fleet applications, Panasonic offers a vehicle mount module that is hard-wired to the vehicle to supply power to the Toughbook and accessories such as printers and scanners. The mount also can be hard-wired to the vehicle’s databus to capture and monitor vehicle, driver and engine performance data.

CarrierWeb’s TruckersMate fleet management system is another example of how onboard technology and 3G networks can transform a vehicle into an on-the-road office. CarrierWeb uses Cingular’s 3G mobile network called Edge to eliminate any latency or lag time in communications between the office, vehicle and driver, says Norman Thomas, vice president of marketing for CarrierWeb.

TruckersMate is like having instant messaging in the cab, just as you would in an office between computers, Thomas says. The system transmits location, performance and other data from the vehicle to a server every minute; it also sends and receives messages to and from the truck within three seconds. By comparison, some competitors’ systems in the market today have 15 to 20 minutes of lag time, he says.

With a larger pipe, so to speak, to push information between the office, vehicles and drivers, technology providers have found new opportunities to broaden their product portfolio. PeopleNet recently introduced g3 Services, an application programming interface (API) that enables third-party systems – such as vehicle sensors for tire pressure, and collision and lane-change warning devices – to integrate with PeopleNet’s onboard computer, the g3.

Ron Konezny, chief operating officer of PeopleNet, envisions that g3 will serve as the core router of information from third-party vehicle systems in a Wireless Vehicle Area Network (WiVAN) environment.

All of PeopleNet’s current applications use the 3G network platform CDMA 1xRTT, which is used by Sprint and Verizon, to reach speeds of 144 kbps. Soon, the company will release its first set of applications that take full advantage of high bandwidth networks, says Brian McLaughlin, PeopleNet’s vice president of marketing. They include in-cab scanning, faxing and delivery of rich content to drivers, such as training videos or entertainment, in conjunction with new enhanced displays.

Because of their widespread use by both consumers and businesses, the latest advancements in cellular networks tend to get the most publicity. The same company that designed many of the core technologies of 3G cellular networks, Qualcomm, has made equal advances in the bandwidth of satellite communications, which are used commonly in the truckload segment.

Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions recently announced the commercial availability of its next generation OmniVision platform. The satellite airlink has been completely redesigned to significantly increase bandwidth, says Norm Ellis, vice president and general manager of transportation and logistics for QWBS.

OmniVision customers can quickly and economically send scanned documents to the vehicle, such as permits and U.S. Customs forms that the driver can print in the cab, Ellis says. In 2007, OmniVision users will be able to send Wav audio files to the onboard unit, enabling a company president or safety manager, for example, to communicate consistently with a fleet of drivers.

Two years ago, many of the wireless applications that only seemed possible are now reality.