Deciding to add wireless communications to your fleet is the easy part.
Whether you're a truckload carrier or a local service operation, wireless communications is becoming an indispensable management tool. Today, there are services that excel at tracking and dispatching, others that are designed to handle large amounts of data, others that focus on remote security monitoring, and still others that combine telephone voice service with the features of dispatch radio. Some wireless systems are positioned as standalone fleet management tools, and some have been developed to complement and integrate seamlessly with existing fleet information systems. Complexity ranges from simple pagers to full-blown voice and data systems, and costs mirror that same enormous range.
Choosing the right wireless service for your particular fleet is a complex process involving high stakes. Not only does wireless communications require a substantial capital outlay for the necessary truck and office hardware, but it also requires a major commitment of resources to integrate the chosen service into existing or new information management systems. In most cases, you'll also want to change or modify fleet operations to best take advantage of the new technology's potential. And, of course, drivers, dispatchers, customer service reps, and many others will have to be trained.
Once you've made those kinds of investments in time and money, it's highly unlikely that you'd even consider switching wireless services, so you'd better be sure you choose well the first time.
Although there's been lots written about the specific technologies behind the various wireless services, in truth these technologies are on a fast evolutionary track with distinctions between them blurring almost as quickly as they develop. The best course is to avoid deep technological analysis and to base your decision on how these technologies are applied in trucking environments, rather than on how they communicate without wires.
To help you get started, truck.com has rounded up details on 17 wireless providers that have targeted trucking as a major market for their services. The accompanying chart will help you quickly identify those that offer the coverage and services required for your particular operation. No magazine article could ever give you all the details you need to make an informed decision about such a complex topic, so pick four or five that seem to best suit your fleet's needs, and start asking questions. Information phone numbers are provided.
Before turning to the chart, however, you may find it useful to look over the following brief points about wireless coverage, capabilities, and each of the 17 providers.
Let's start with coverage.
If you have widespread operations, it's likely that you need a wireless service with complete or national coverage.
Complete, or "ubiquitous," coverage means that you can reach a truck or driver anywhere in the U.S. and/or Canada. Only a system that uses satellite for all or part of its wireless service can offer complete coverage, although you should note that buildings, trees, and other obstacles can block a satellite signal temporarily. Low-earth-orbiting (LEO) satellite coverage is complete, but until the one active LEO provider launches the rest of its small satellites later next year, access to its mobile units is restricted to an average of eight times a day.
National, or "near ubiquitous," coverage means that mobile units can be reached anywhere there is cellular telephone coverage. In practical terms, cellular is a well-developed system and covers all but remote areas.
While truckload carriers and private fleets with similar operations require complete or national coverage, many other types of fleets can be well-served by a growing number of regional or local wireless options.
Although cellular digital packet data (CDPD) is a cellular service, its coverage is not national, at least not yet. Requiring new transmission hardware, CDPD is being added in stages by many cellular providers and coverage is still limited. According to the CDPD Forum, this new wireless service is currently available in 93 metropolitan areas and covers just under half of the U.S. population.
Other land-based wireless networks offer regional or local coverage, with the definition of regional varying widely by provider. Some are limited to specific cities or major traffic corridors, while others are establishing networks in many cities and plan to eventually develop national coverage like that offered by cellular. These regional and local networks offer many features that may be attractive to your particular fleet, but be sure you clearly understand their current and planned coverages.
Now for some short notes on each of the wireless companies included in the chart.
Qualcomm was the first to offer fleets access to satellite-based wireless data communications, and it is, by far, trucking's largest provider. It offers complete coverage for two-way messages and data, as well as tracking for trucks and attached trailers, Internet e-mail for drivers, and a wide range of information services.
HighwayMaster is a cellular-based system with national coverage and a solid fleet track record. It offers voice as well as data communications, and has recently developed strong information management options.
American Mobile Satellite Corp. offers a number of voice and data wireless services, all using its own communications satellite. It also has a multi-modal service that uses less expensive land-based communications when it's available.
RAM Mobile Data provides two-way data communications over a network of satellite and land-based services. It features high-volume data capacities and uses the Mobitex communications standard. RAM works with a number of integrators and resellers.
PeopleNet Communications has just begun a cellular-based national service featuring voice, data, and paging, as well as untethered trailer tracking. Fleets can use a local Internet connection to access the network.
ORBCOMM is a LEO satellite system that provides two-way data communications and tracking. Its full network of 26 satellites is scheduled to be in place by mid-1998. Its service is available to fleets through third-party providers.
ARINC offers two-way data messaging and untethered trailer tracking over ORBCOMM's satellites. It is also adding land-based data service for local and regional fleet operations.
LoadLink uses the ORBCOMM network for two-way data and tracking. It also offers fleets 24-hour monitoring services for cargo and trailers.
Orbital Sciences is one of the partners in ORBCOMM and has recently acquired the GemTrac untethered trailer tracking and monitoring system. The system will work over the LEO network or a variety of land-based wireless networks.
AirIQ is a new company formed by Bell Mobility and two other partners to provide wireless voice and data services throughout the U.S. and Canada. It will use both ORBCOMM and cellular channels for data communications, remote monitoring, and exception-based tracking.
Nextel Communications is a digital wireless network with coverage in over 300 cities. It offers wireless telephone, dispatch, group dispatch, and voice mail services. It plans to add data communications in 1998.
Geotek Communications is a private network currently operating in 12 U.S. metro areas, and plans to add 28 more in the next three to five years. It offers two-way voice, dispatch, messaging, and tracking.
Teletrac is a land-based tracking and two-way messaging service with coverage in nine U.S. cities, expanding to cover the Northeast corridor in 1998. Unlike satellite-based tracking systems, this system's land-based signals are not blocked by dense urban "canyons."
TranSettlements Network Services offers two-way data, messaging, and tracking over CDPD, as well as optional cellular voice service. It uses hardware that can automatically switch to normal cellular service when CDPD service is not available.
Ameritech Cellular Services provides CDPD services in the Midwest. Offerings include data, messaging, voice, paging, tracking, and remote monitoring. It can also provide normal, or circuit-switched, cellular service where CDPD is not available.
Bell Atlantic Mobile offers similar CDPD service under the AirBridge Packet Services name. Coverage area runs along the Northeast corridor from Boston to the Carolinas.
Flash Comm has just received operating licenses from the Federal Communications Commission and says it will build a proprietary network with national coverage by the third quarter of 1998. Strengths will be real-time tracking and two-way messaging at relatively low cost.
One other word of caution before you begin your search for the perfect wireless provider. Developing accurate cost comparisons in this area can be extremely difficult. To get best-guess estimates, start by telling each potential provider exactly what kind of information you expect to handle over the system since data-volume charges can vary widely.
Also, don't underestimate the cost of integrating a wireless with the rest of your information system, and consider how much training each type of wireless service will require in your particular fleet.
For additional information, see chart on pages 12-17 of Fleet Owner's November 1997 Truck.Com supplement.