WIRELESS COMMUNICATIONS UPGRADE ROI

When dry van carrier Southern Cal Transport Inc. looked into updating its mobile communications network last year, vp-operations Danny Blalock didn't like the math:

When dry van carrier Southern Cal Transport Inc. looked into updating its mobile communications network last year, vp-operations Danny Blalock didn't like the math: The tab for upgrading all 400 vehicles in the longhaul and regional divisions could run upwards of six figures.

At the time, the trucks were equipped with GeoLogic Solutions' MobileMax multi-mode communication system, which uses both cellular and satellite pathways to deliver information between dispatchers and other operations personnel and the drivers. According to Blalock, 50% of Southern Cal's transmissions went via satellite, which meant a two-minute time lapse between sending a message and receiving a reply. Not great, he admits, but certainly adequate for the job.

GeoLogic then developed a communication pathway using Cingular's General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) digital wireless network, which offered digital data coverage in the U.S. in 13,000 cities and towns and along more than 40,000 miles of major highways. Blalock was told that this system could cut transmission time to two seconds or less.

However, it would require a six-figure investment — or more — to get it. “My words at the time were: ‘Why do we need to spend a million dollars to gain two minutes?’ It didn't seem worth it,” he says.

But after Blalock did his own research into the upgrade equation, the picture changed dramatically. “I talked to our dispatchers and found out that turnaround time with satellite wasn't two minutes — it was more like 15 or even 30 minutes in some cases,” he says.

GPRS also has a capacity advantage. By using GPRS, Southern Cal could update its system's software and download engine data, fuel usage and other information over-the-air — all without bringing trucks into the shop.

“For our longhaul operation, where trucks run 1,200 miles a day in many cases, that's a huge savings,” Blalock explains. “Just taking those trucks out of route back to our headquarters to offload data or update software would mean a huge loss in daily revenue.”

Once Blalock got his arms around how a faster channel with more data capacity could benefit Southern Cal's operations, making the decision to upgrade the mobile communication system “became a no brainer.”

There are two important things for fleets to remember when it comes time to consider upgrading their mobile communications systems, notes Sean Dorney, GeoLogic's vp-sales & marketing. First, since no two fleets are alike, a feature that's advantageous to one might not be to another. Second, if a fleet is satisfied with the capabilities of its current system, making a change might not be worth it.

Thus, it might seem that whether or not to upgrade a mobile communication system is more a matter of what a fleets wants than what it needs.

But it's really not that simple. Older systems, including some that have only been around five years or so, rely on communication channels that are rapidly disappearing — especially since most cellular networks are leaving old analog connections behind in favor of faster digital links.

“Technology is changing rapidly,” says Brian McLaughlin, vp-marketing for PeopleNet. “There's a new generation of mobile communications technology every four to five years.”

Tom Doyle, vp-business development for Qualcomm's transportation division, notes that such rapid technological change impacts how a fleet constructs its upgrade strategy. “In some cases, it's a matter of survival, forcing a fleet to upgrade regardless of the return on investment calculation,” he says.

“One the one hand, that's driven by changing customer demands: they may want more freight tracking data in real-time than the fleet's current system can provide,” he points out. “On the other, your mobility system provider may go out of business or your reliability isn't there. That forces fleets to switch in more rapid fashion than they'd like.”

EXPANSION EFFORT

Doyle adds that upgrading isn't all about the in-cab equipment, either. Fleets shouldn't ignore the back-office component, where upgrading may prove more difficult.

“The costliest parts of a mobile communication system on the in-cab side are the wiring and brackets. Swapping out the actual ‘box’ and keypad is relatively easy,” he says. “The back-office setup is what may complicate an upgrade…especially in terms of integrating different or new software packages.”

Replacing an obsolete system is not the only reason fleets should consider a communications upgrade. According to PeopleNet's McLaughlin, fleets should also think of it as a way to gain access to new applications, as well as more cost-effective and beefier communication channels.

“Look at first-generation mobile communication systems based on satellite. Those channels could communicate 0.3 kilobits of data per second,” he says. “Today's third-generation systems using digital cellular networks can transmit 144 kilobits per second; that's more that 500 times the speed and data volume. Couple that to the higher processing power and more memory in mobile communication systems today and a much larger array of capabilities starts to open up.”

That includes the ability to transmit large files — such as eight days of a driver's logbook, the amount of data required by FMCSA inspectors — in as little as 10 seconds, or to send streaming video to a driver.

“Think about accident reconstruction,” adds Greg Brott, vp of @Road. “If you have a video system on a truck that's involved in an accident, that data can be instantly transmitted back to headquarters with the larger pipes digital cellular channels offer.” @Road is currently working to connect its 3100 Series mobile communication system to Eaton's VORAD system to collect and transmit accident data the split-second after a crash occurs.

The bigger data channels can also be used to improve billing practices. “Typically, a trucking company starts the billing process days after hauling a customer's freight; you've got to receive the signed proofs of delivery, marry them to the proper bill of lading and re-enter that data into a computer,” says Bott.

“With a bigger data channel,” he continues, “the driver can push all that information back to headquarters seconds after the delivery is made, allowing the fleet to start the billing process right then.”

If an upgraded mobile communication system can deliver data faster, in greater volume and with improved cost-efficiencies, most fleets should be able to drive a variety of bottom line improvements. According to Jack Schwerman, CEO of Tankstar USA, “Our performance has a direct impact on the quality of our customers' products and services.”

As a result, Tankstar adopted PeopleNet's latest generation mobile systems — g3 — not only to boost tracking and dispatch capabilities, but also to take advantage of geo-fencing to automatically trigger reports, or “move alerts,” when trucks have arrived at or left remote locations.

The fleet can also capture key performance metrics, such as idling, truck speed and miles per gallon. Reports on drivers who exceed company speed settings or use excessive braking are used to help target and enhance training programs and overall performance, he notes.

Sitton Motor Lines is now on its third generation of GeoLogic's MobileMax system. In 1995 the fleet installed ProStar 2000, then upgraded in 2002 and 2005. Jeff Thurman, executive vp-operations and information systems, says the increasing message speed and data capacity of today's networks are the key reasons Sitton keeps upgrading.

“Having more bandwidth for data is what opens up opportunities in the future,” he explains. “It'll allow us to monitor vehicle performance, fuel consumption and speed compliance with much greater detail in seconds. It also allows us to look at streaming driver training videos right into the cab or offer automatic driver logbooks. And we can do all of this without even bringing the truck into a terminal.”

In addition, drivers have instant messaging, which makes them very happy, he notes. “We get much better coverage with our digital cellular network, yet we pay pretty much the same communication rates as before,” Thurman says.

Via a direct link to Qualcomm's network communications center, LTL and TL carrier Averitt is able to connect all 3,500 trucks at more than 100 locations, including service centers, dedicated fleet accounts and corporate headquarters, notes David Henry, director of systems design.

“The system provides better planning information for our customers earlier, with direct feeds into various optimization programs designed to provide service at reduced costs,” he adds. “That provides a simple interface for data exchange between our drivers and host transportation management systems, which allows us to seamlessly update our systems around the clock.”

“What these upgrades are doing is increasing the velocity of information to match and exceed the velocity of freight,” adds PeopleNet's McLaughlin. “It's always been a fundamental business problem in trucking that information lags way behind the freight. Now you can get out ahead of the freight; that can improve productivity, safety and cost-efficiency.”

Minimizing the pain

Upgrading any mobile communication system in trucking today — or switching to an entirely new one - is not a simple process. According to Steve Blair, general manager of TransCore's Keypoint software division, fleets should closely monitor the process from the start.

“There is a spectrum of potential change to consider. On the in-cab side — in terms of tracking, messaging, and document flow — the pain of change is not insignificant,” he notes. “There is more and more demand for technical skill in the cab, from receiving communication via messaging systems to expediting the delivery of paperwork via truck-stop scanning or even in-cab scanning,” says Blair.

“That's why driver training is a huge issue; they must be brought in off the road to be trained. When you factor in 100% or more driver turnover every year, it can become a complicated task to change technologies in the cab. And constantly ‘moving their cheese’ does not help driver retention.”

But when a fleet starts talking about how switching technologies can affect the back office, the pain can be even greater. “Changing transportation management systems affects every aspect of an operation — drivers, billing, customer service, payroll, etc.,” When changing technologies or vendors, fleets must make sure the new system “not only fixes the things you didn't like about the old system, but keeps the things you liked about it, too,” Blair cautions.

“In-cab switching or upgrading is a little easier as you can install it in phases; as trucks come in for regular maintenance, new units can be installed,” he points out.

“On the back office side, however, the switch is much harder. That's why a good plan is critical,” Blair emphasizes.

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