<!--skip--><!--skip date-->Smooth operator

Wireless data communications is no longer a luxury but a necessity in transportation management. New technologies have emerged, offering better communications links between operators and their fleets.


Smooth operator

By Cisco Systems, Special to CNETAsia
June 14, 2004

Wireless data communications is no longer a luxury but a necessity in transportation management. New technologies have emerged, offering better communications links between operators and their fleets.

More than a decade ago, the transportation industry was one of the first to adopt wireless data communications systems.

Although fleet operators often paid a hefty price to use these systems, the ability to track and manage their vehicle fleets justified the cost. For long-haul operators working on strict schedules and tight profit margins, the usual alternative--waiting for a driver to pull over and find a pay phone--wasn’t very attractive.

Many trucking firms, however, considered wireless data communications an unaffordable and often unnecessary luxury. Regional and local operators didn’t want to pay a premium for satellite, analog cellular, or packet radio networks designed to provide nationwide coverage. Private fleet operators running fixed routes with multiple stops couldn’t justify the effect of these services on their profit margins. And for many operators, wireless networks simply couldn’t provide the bandwidth they needed to manage a growing assortment of mobile applications.

Today, more trucking companies are rethinking their wireless investments. New digital wireless networks offer improved coverage and faster bandwidth. Hardware costs have dropped, and more vendors are replacing proprietary systems with off-the-shelf hardware and operating systems.

Applications now run the gamut from mileage logs to route-management and customer-service systems that link directly to a firm’s back-end enterprise systems. Ultimately, a new generation of Internet-enabled systems will deliver inexpensive, powerful mobile data links between operators and their fleets.

The traditional wireless caveat that the technology was too ambitious and too expensive for smaller firms is no longer true.

One size fits all
The traditional wireless caveat that the technology was too ambitious and too expensive for smaller firms is no longer true. In fact, smaller operators may get some of the greatest benefits from new wireless technologies.

Internet-based technologies have played a major role in making wireless technology accessible and affordable for smaller firms. Application service providers, for example, can provide subscription-based dispatch and e-commerce systems, allowing any firm with a wireless Internet connection to link their vehicles to advanced fleet-management applications. Corporate intranets make it easier to integrate onboard applications with a firm’s back-end billing, accounting, customer service, and other systems.

Applications like these are no longer a luxury at a time when more firms are adopting just-in-time inventory models and tightly integrated supply chains. Long-haul operators, for example, sometimes find themselves dispatching trucks hundreds of miles in order to make a 15-minute delivery window, and private fleets risk becoming the weak link in a firm’s supply chain.
Wi-Fi to the rescue
As fleet operators of every size generate more data, moving that data between their trucks and terminals has also become more time-consuming. Many companies download data from returning trucks using hard-wire connections, and some even use "sneakernet" systems where drivers hand-carry their data storage devices into the terminal.

Wireless LANs offer a solution to this problem: Data transfers that once took 15 minutes or more now take less than a minute over high-speed connections. Drivers simply pull their trucks into the terminal or parking lot and walk away, while their onboard data downloads automatically across the network.

Wireless LAN hardware is also cheap, widely available, and relatively easy to integrate with a company’s existing network infrastructure.

Wireless LAN hardware is also cheap, widely available, and relatively easy to integrate with a company’s existing network infrastructure. Even for operators with satellite or cellular wireless systems, wireless LANs are often a cheaper and more efficient option.

Wireless LANs are also appearing on the open road. Cisco Systems and PNV are currently installing the Cisco Aironet wireless networking systems in truck stops across the United States.

With a range of up to a half-mile, these types of systems will eventually give truckers (and other motorists) a far-reaching network of wireless Internet hot spots where they can send and receive data, check e-mail, and even make Internet phone calls.

Tying it together
For many trucking firms, a big question remains unanswered: How to combine so many different mobile devices, data sources, and networks using a single, affordable communications solution?

Fleet operators today rely heavily on vertically integrated, single-use systems. The problem is that every system requires its own communications infrastructure, and there is a need to justify that infrastructure investment for each application.

A carrier might, for example, use a satellite system to track its vehicles while its remote diagnostics system uses a cellular network and its route-management system transfers data over an IP-based WiFi network.

Mobile IP technology is emerging as the best solution to this problem. Mobile IP allows a moving vehicle to use the best available technology including satellite, cellular, and WiFi networks, to maintain a constant network connection.

When the vehicle moves from one network to another, the Mobile IP helps ensure a seamless transfer without interrupting the vehicle’s connection, allowing it to maintain "always-on" connectivity from almost anywhere. The applications don’t know how they’re connecting, they just connect.

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