EV-DO, EDGE, GPRS, 1XRTT, UMTS, 3G, 4G, CDMA, GSM, iDEN — it's called wireless communications, but sometimes it seems more like a Tower of Babel than a cell tower. Not only is the wireless world in love with acronyms, but it's also blessed and cursed with rapid and relentless development of new technology. It's an exciting environment for those in that industry, but for the rest of us it's a bewildering mix of potential and promises.

The problem for trucking is that wireless communications is well established as an essential tool. If you aren't using some type of wireless system to manage your fleet, you're shopping for one. And whether you're a current user or a prospective one, you recognize that the impact of wireless technology on productivity and competition can be enormous. That makes choosing the right technology or figuring out how to best exploit the next big development in wireless systems a difficult and high-stakes decision.

The good news is that you don't have to understand what the acronyms mean or how the latest developments work to take advantage of their benefits. What you do need is a general understanding of the ongoing evolution of wireless technology, which will help you evaluate how that evolution can benefit your particular fleet.

First, a bit of background. Starting in the mid to late 1980s, trucking, or one segment of it, became the first profitable market for wireless data services as truckload carriers recognized the value of messaging and tracking. The pioneer was Qualcomm, with its satellite service offering coverage no matter where a truck might roam. Others, like PeopleNet, followed, providing similar messaging and tracking services using rapidly growing analog cellular telephone networks that had been developed for consumer voice communications. And still others, like the company now called GeoLogic, began serving the truckload market with a mix of satellites and land-based networks.

No matter what wireless data network truckload carriers adopted, they all shared similar characteristics — broad coverage, but low data transmission speeds and fairly expensive rates based on the amount of data transmitted over their networks. Those characteristics suit truckload fleets well, since small status and location reports can provide big benefits when used for load planning, driver management and customer service.

While a number of early wireless providers have disappeared or merged, the survivors have thrived serving a niche that finds a clear return-on-investment in the services they provide. However, the rest of the trucking industry, and indeed the rest of the general business community, has always been intrigued by the promises of wireless data, but struggled to find a clear ROI that would justify investment. And that's where recent and near-future developments are opening new opportunities to extend the reach of wireless data into virtually every segment of trucking.

BLURRING THE LINES

Higher speed and lower cost are the powerful drivers of this change. Think about how the move from dial-up Internet connections to broadband access has changed the way we use wired networks in our businesses and private lives. We have started to see the introduction of wireless networks that can support faster data transfers, and technology that can reach true broadband speeds has already been developed and is in the early stages of commercial deployment.

Speed is important because it makes more complex mobile devices and applications practical. Speed also increases the amount of data that can be moved over a wireless network, theoretically lowering data transmission cost, or at least making it cost-effective to move larger data blocks required by new applications. Instead of messages and position reports measured in individual characters, a document like a bill of lading can require KB of data. Vehicle operating data for diagnostic purposes might move into the MB range, and video streams for security could raise file transfers into the GB territory.

The higher speeds for wireless data are coming as a direct result of the cellular telephone industry converting from analog systems, which aren't very efficient at handling data, to digital ones that were intended from their inception to move data, as well as voice communications. Here's where acronyms become important.

The first all-digital wireless network was iDEN, a technology developed by Motorola and used in North America by Nextel. Initially, the system only supported voice communications, but data was always part of its evolutionary path and a few years ago Nextel rolled out that service. A software upgrade to that data service, called WiDEN, is now in trial use and will offer a fourfold increase in data speeds.

In the same timeframe, other cellular providers began converting from analog to digital with what they called their third generation, or 3G, networks. Currently there are two 3G networks: GSM, which is used by Cingular and its recently acquired AT&T Wireless network, and CDMA, which is a technology developed by Qualcomm and used by both the Verizon and Sprint networks. Digital data travels over the GSM network using technology known as GPRS, and over CDMA via 1XRTT.

And already in field tests are a fourth generation of wireless systems. Called collectively 4G, of course, these are FLASH-OFDM for Nextel's iDEN, EDGE for GSM and EV-DO for CDMA.

Got all that? If not, don't worry because the important thing for a fleet is the potential speed differences, not the technology names.

The best way to describe those differences is an analogy, according to Henry Popplewell, vp for transportation and logistics at Nextel. The initial cellular networks have “speeds comparable to the 16-29Kbs we saw with the first, slow dial-up [wired] modems,” he says. The new 3G digital data networks “are more like the 56Kbs speed you get with current dial-up service or a bit faster. With the 4G systems, we'll be moving to true broadband cable/DSL type speeds.”

In practical terms, the 3G network speeds mean fleets can think about “wireless file transfers, HTML internet applications and other applications that have higher data transmission requirements,” says Tom Cuthbertson, vp of government industry liaison and network technologies for GeoLogic. “Devices for those networks are already starting to come on the market.”

“Over the last few years cellular carriers have put a lot of money into their [3G] networks, and now they're looking for a way to get [data] traffic up on those networks,” says Clem Driscoll, author of a number of fleet wireless services studies. “I see a real trend beginning towards the use of portable devices with wireless connectivity, handhelds with bar code scanners and field service tools.”

One good example of the trucking-specific devices being developed for the new wireless generation is Symbol Technologies' recent announcement that it will offer versions of its handhelds with built-in Nextel network capability, giving those devices cellular voice, push-to-talk voice and wireless data communications with GPS tracking.

“You can see the strategy developing as the industry begins filling in the pieces of the supply chain,” says Popplewell. “First we had voice, then tracking, and now with Symbol we move into the distribution network. With this continual development of devices and network speed, we're filling in all the missing pieces of the supply chain puzzle.”

When PeopleNet asked its fleet user advisory board where it should go with the new 3G and 4G capabilities, the board came up with five areas it wanted to see addressed: supply chain communications, route management, safety and security compliance, end-to-end vehicle management, and driver services.

Applications and features envisioned by the fleets include in-transit freight inventory updates for customers, graphical maps and geo-corridor parameters included in dispatch messages, onboard accident reconstruction, remote vehicle shutdown, vehicle component tracking, and even streaming video for entertaining or training drivers.

“It's a whole new world [with 3G and 4G], with cost coming down and speed going up rapidly,” says Brian McLaughlin, vp of marketing. “Now we have to build the applications for that environment.

SATELLITE STAYS

Despite the huge improvements in cellular data capabilities, satellite networks will continue playing an important role. “Cellular networks are getting much better, but the need for absolute ubiquitous coverage in some truckload operations is not going away,” says Cuthbertson. Instead of replacing satellite data systems, the new cellular ones are more likely to complement them in these operations, he says.

Under its former name, Aether Systems, Geologic developed, patented and began marketing such dual-network systems. The initial motivation was to control communications costs by using lower cost land-based networks when they were available and switching to satellite when necessary for complete coverage.

Now with the higher bandwidth cellular services, it's possible to build integrated systems that rely on the cellular networks to deliver high-data services like document transfers and driver entertainment, while reserving the satellite network for remote messaging and tracking.

“Some of the truckload guys have the mindset that satellite coverage is better than terrestrial [cellular], but I see the integration of cellular and satellite coming,” says Driscoll. In fact, he says, integration will probably pull together a number of wireless communication technologies, including local area or short range ones like WiFi and RFID.

Calling them “hybrid systems,” Popplewell also sees the advent of such integrated systems. “I see an opportunity for service that lets you use a [wireless] LAN within a building and then roam seamlessly onto a public network when you leave the building.”

Another important point is that satellite communications technology is not standing still. As mentioned earlier, Qualcomm developed the CDMA technology as a direct outgrowth of the work that went into creating its OmniTRACS satellite network.

“Now we're actually able to leverage the CDMA 3G technology and pull it back into the satellite link,” says Tom Doyle, vp-business development for Qualcomm's wireless business solutions division. The company is using the 3G work to develop its next-generation satellite data system, which will “deliver dramatic increases in bandwidth and improvements in cost, but still retain ubiquitous coverage,” says Doyle.

However, with its investment in digital cellular technology, the company also sees a growing role for terrestrial systems “as those networks increase capability and ubiquity,” he adds. In fact, Qualcomm's new trailer tracking system is based on terrestrial systems. “But in our view, satellite will still be an important technology [for trucking] for a very long time and the blending [of satellite and terrestrial] will develop over many years,” Doyle says.

BIG FISH, SMALL FISH

When looking at the evolution of wireless data, one more thing to consider is the change in trucking's place in the pecking order. For years, fleets have been one of the largest, if not the largest, user of wireless data services. Wireless service providers have focused solely, or at least largely, on trucking, developing services and support specifically for fleet operations.

With the development of the 3G networks, the potential market for wireless data services changes dramatically. For example, with the acquisition of AT&T Wireless, Cingular now has over 47-million customers who will have access to data and voice over their network. Verizon, Sprint and Nextel combined serve approximately 84 million.

As the pond grows, trucking becomes a relatively smaller fish, or in other terms a niche market for wireless data. It's not clear how this change in market position will affect the wireless service available to fleets. “In general, I think [the growth of the wireless data market] will help trucking,” says Doyle. “It should bring down the total cost of ownership over time and it means there's a bigger opportunity pie for funding network build-out.”

More importantly in Doyle's view, the larger potential market means much more rapid development of the IT tools needed to build wireless applications. “As those tools become more mature, it frees us [as application developers] to move up the stack, to stop spending time on infrastructure development and to focus on application features and value for our customers.”

And that promise is almost enough to make up for all the acronyms.