Browsing on the Road

Trucking was an early adapter of wireless data services and was also quick to embrace Internet applications. What seems like a natural next step wireless Internet has been predicted as the industry's next-great-thing for almost five years now, but to date relatively few fleets have shown interest in the technology. Many wireless services currently used by fleets do take advantage of the Internet as

Trucking was an early adapter of wireless data services and was also quick to embrace Internet applications. What seems like a natural next step — wireless Internet — has been predicted as the industry's next-great-thing for almost five years now, but to date relatively few fleets have shown interest in the technology.

Many wireless services currently used by fleets do take advantage of the Internet as a low-cost, easy-to-implement conduit for moving information transmitted over their wireless networks to and from dispatchers and other fleet managers. The wireless portions of the services, however, use a variety of data formats developed specifically for their particular systems.

In contrast, wireless Internet actually pushes standard Internet browsing out to the mobile worker, providing remote access to a broad array of Internet-based data networks or applications.

That's not to say that drivers can view standard full-color web pages or surf the 'net to check stock prices. Rather, wireless Internet works with browsers and web pages designed specifically for wireless devices with limited screen displays and relatively low-speed data transmissions, and drivers use the technology for real-time, low-cost access to the fleet's intranet or relevant public Internet sites.

The basic concept is to extend the office worker's Internet access out to the mobile worker with a wireless device, says Henry Popplewell, vp-transportation and logistics for Nextel Communications. Benefits include tying mobile workers directly into “an organization's specific business applications as well as giving them access to business tools like account information, weather, freight matching and so on,” he explains.

For example, a few large LTL carriers have turned Nextel's Web-enabled handheld phones into low-cost wireless data collection devices for their pickup-and-delivery operations. As drivers make pickups, they file weight and destination information using the phones' small screens and wireless Internet connection. The data can then be immediately accessed by outbound load planning applications, accounting and customer service without any additional data-entry steps. Similarly, real-time status is available on deliveries for every portion of the operation that can use it.

Looking beyond LTL operations, Popplewell says logistics companies “that have a high degree of web enablement can make a strong business case for wireless Internet to improve supply chain visibility.” Vehicle manufacturers and service providers could also use the technology “to push customer service right out to drivers, giving them direct access to maintenance schedules, PM alerts, traffic conditions and the like,” he adds.

“Any company that needs to get specific job-related information to and from mobile workers in real-time and to keep track of their activities in an automated fashion can benefit from wireless Internet,” says Miguel Gonsalves, vp-marketing and investor relations for AirIQ Inc.

A wireless applications provider to trucking and other industries with mobile workers, AirIQ currently has 25,000 subscriber units using its wireless Internet service, which can work with any mobile device that can access a web address. Small parcel couriers, P&D fleets and field-service operations are among its most popular wireless Internet fleet uses, says Gonsalves.

A single, consistent standard for communicating both within the office and from the field is a major advantage of the wireless Internet format, he points out. “With a common standard (like the Internet) also comes a multiple choice of vendors, which brings the cost advantages of mass production,” he says.

For a smaller fleet, a native Internet system also makes it easier for them to take advantage of hosted or ASP (application service provider) services, freeing the fleet from software installation and maintenance responsibilities and costs, adds Popplewell. “The ASP model over-promised and under-delivered everywhere except in transportation,” he says. “It turns out that a hosted Internet portal makes a lot of sense for a small fleet organization, and a wireless extension to drivers on the road is a model that works well.”

If there is one weakness in current wireless Internet services, it's coverage. The two major suppliers of commercial wireless Internet service — Nexus in the U.S. and Telus in Canada — operate land-based networks that concentrate coverage within major population centers. For fleets with P&D or field service operations that match those target areas, wireless Internet works.

But if drivers have to routinely leave areas with reliable coverage, Internet browser based systems don't store information for forwarding when they return to coverage, says Matt Marks, a project manager for wireless applications provider PointServe.

“The concept of a thin client on a mobile unit (with the application residing on an Internet server) is a good one, but the coverage has to get better for our customers,” Marks says. “Mission critical service providers like utilities can't afford to have their technicians left high and dry because they're out of (wireless) contact.”

Still, says Popplewell, “transportation companies have been ready adopters of any technology that drives customer service and improves productivity, which has made the industry unusually open to wireless solutions.” And for a growing number of fleets, those solutions are likely to include wireless Internet.

Breaking the speed limit

Wireless Internet services used by truck drivers and other mobile workers have data transmission speeds that are roughly comparable to dial-up modems, generally clocking in between 40 and 65 Kbps. Such data speeds are more than adequate for the current crop of microbrowsers and web pages specifically developed for wireless systems.

Data-intensive web services like streaming video require far faster data speeds, and at least one company is already offering a wireless system boasting download speeds that approach 400 Kbps. Marketed mainly to owners of recreational vehicles, TracNet from KVH Industries receives its high-speed downloads through a mobile satellite TV antenna.

Uploads from the vehicle can be sent via a land line connection when the RV is parked or at a much higher cost over a wireless satellite or cellular system while its moving. The system also provides high-speed wireless LAN (local area network) connections within the vehicle for any PC device equipped with an 802.11b modem.

Streaming video hasn't made it into a wireless fleet application yet, but when it does, the technology is ready.

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