Clearing the air over mobile communications

June 1, 2002
Nearly all truckload carriers and between a third to a half of private fleets use some sort of mobile communication system. That said, confusion about

Nearly all truckload carriers and between a third to a half of private fleets use some sort of mobile communication system. That said, confusion about which system to adopt remains common as vendors continue to pop into the market only to sell out or disappear within a short time.

In general, communication systems can be divided into three groups: cellular telephones, pagers with messaging, and satellite systems. A possible fourth group of systems is radio frequency networks, which are operated and maintained specifically by the user. An important part of understanding any offer to install a mobile fleet communication system is that global positioning is not communication. A lot of vendors like to talk about GPS, but global positioning does not transmit data; it only provides a location, says Pete Allen, director of strategic accounts for XATA Corporation. Systems using GPS can record state line crossings, track real mileage, and help managers determine road speed; but they cannot transmit or receive messages from remote locations.

Communication is a connection between management offices and trucks on the road with the ability to pass information in both directions. Communication systems serve many purposes. Among these are improving security for the driver and cargo, real-time vehicle tracking, improved equipment utilization, trailer location (tethered or untethered), elimination of time loss from telephone check calls, and improved customer service. For long-haul fleets, communications systems can provide e-mail services to drivers. In local and regional delivery applications, the systems can help managers monitor route schedules.

Factors to consider in selecting a communication system are cost, both to install and to operate; the area covered by the system; and the ability managers have to control system capacity and use. These factors are all interrelated. For instance, the cost of ground-based communication systems such as cell phones or pagers is low, but full coverage can be expected only in metropolitan areas. Satellite systems provide extensive coverage for all of North America, but the cost of use is quite high. Radio frequency networks must be built by the user for information exchange in terminal areas. Coverage exists only for those terminal areas, but once in place, the cost to operate such a system is extremely low.

In general, operating costs can be tied directly to the amount of airtime the system uses, Allen says. If the system transmits only when it needs to report an exception to planned activity, operating cost can be reduced. For most vendors, selling airtime is the goal. That's why the cost of equipment often is so low. It's not that the hardware is free; it is that the cost has been buried in the usage fees, which apply every time the system sends a message, he says. When airtime carries a premium cost, the best method for controlling that cost is to transmit information only when absolutely necessary. For instance, arrival at a delivery stop is not necessary information unless something has happened that will impact route activity for the rest of the day, requiring that downstream customers be notified of schedule changes.

In addition to using communications only for exception reports, another way to reduce costs is to transmit only text. That way, only necessary data gets transmitted. Voice systems, by contrast, are always used more, because conversations include extra, non-business discussion. If data and voice must be combined in communications, a good choice is a bimodal system that attempts to use ground-based networks first and only switches to its satellite mode if it cannot make a ground connection.

Many systems are available that transmit data automatically through the course of a day. If this information is non-essential and can be utilized just as well after a truck returns to base, communication costs can be lowered by extracting data at the warehouse rather than across a wireless network during the day.

Another factor to consider is system portability. With vendors entering and leaving the market regularly, managers need to be sure that any system they adopt can be moved from one service provider to another without extensive modifications. Managers also should ensure that systems can be expanded easily before installation.

About the Author

Gary Macklin

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