The wireless communications industry is consumed with talk of plans for “next generation” networks with greatly expanded capabilities. Even the general press is filled with awed references to coming “3G” networks and the half-step “2.5 G” services already being rolled out. Should you be joining in the excitement, ready to exploit the next frontier in fleet productivity, or will this next generation offer little of bottom-line value for trucking?

The first step to answering that question is understanding what the communications industry means when you look beyond the sea of acronyms they use to describe 3G and 2.5G.

While trucking is quite familiar with satellite-based services, most of the world is talking about terrestrial-based mobile telephone services when they talk about wireless, and these new generations are essentially evolutions of the original analog cellular telephone networks. Although it is possible to send data over the analog networks, for the most part this is a voice service.

The move to digital formats represented the second generation of these services, with most service providers settling on one of two competing technologies, although a third also emerged as an important player in the U.S.

At this point it becomes impossible to avoid acronyms, although it isn't really necessary to understand what the initials actually stand for. Most of the world chose GSM as its 2G digital format, with AT&T representing the largest GSM user in North America. Sprint and the company now called Verizon chose CDMA, which was developed by Qualcomm, as the basis for their digital wireless services. The third digital wireless technology in this second generation is iDEN from Motorola, which is widely available in North America through the Nextel network.

ADDING DATA CAPABILITY

What all the 2G networks have in common is that they were developed primarily for voice communications and the enormous market for “cell phone” services. The definition of 2.5G is far from concrete, but from a practical viewpoint it describes the addition of efficient data capability to the original digital networks. (For the record, GSM's 2.5G data extension is called GPRS; CDMA's is 1xRTT).

In trucking applications, the important characteristics of 2.5G are significantly higher data transfer speeds and “packet data” formats, which offer data integrity, integration and cost benefits.

For example, Teletrac is currently converting its Fleet Director system to GPRS from cellular digital packet data (CDPD), an older technology developed to transmit digital packet data over earlier generation networks.

The most immediate advantage for Fleet Director users will be greatly expanded coverage, according to Tim Van Cleve, Teletrac COO. Because CDPD was never widely deployed, “we were limited to metropolitan and regional services,” he says. In contrast, wireless GSM providers are building GPRS into their entire networks, “which means we now have much wider coverage, especially along all major interstate highways,” Van Cleve says. “That means we can compete as a lower-cost alternative to the other long-haul fleet wireless solutions.”

The 2.5G network also offers the potential for expanding system features without adding communications costs. “The speed (of GPRS) will allow us to move much more data at the same or even less cost,” says Van Cleve. Remote bar code scanning, capture of data collected by a driver's PDA, and credit-card payment support are among the applications that become practical with the new wireless data capability.

Data transfer speed (often called bandwidth) and coverage are important 2.5G advances for trucking, but it's a third feature that makes those characteristics truly useful, according to Cameron Fraser, founder and CTO of WebTech Wireless.

“Five years ago there were so many ways to communicate data wirelessly, but there were so many limitations, too,” says Fraser. “With the advent of 2.5G technologies, you're combining good bandwidth with the use of standard IPs (internet protocols), which finally makes back-office integration [of real-time data from the field] cost effective. While CDPD gave us a taste of that, it was never really more than a regional system. The 2.5G networks offer North American coverage.”

WIRELESS AGNOSTIC

WebTech's wireless fleet management system Quadrant is “wireless agnostic,” says Fraser, meaning it's designed to run over almost any wireless network. But IP standardization has helped the company get it up and running in 25 countries, largely over GPRS, but also 1xRTT. “We've even been able to develop a dual-mode solution that uses Orbcomm's satellite network for high-priority messages that have to get through when a truck might be out of GPRS coverage,” he adds.

For some, IP connectivity will prove to be the most important “next generation” wireless development for truck fleet applications, especially when it's paired with the ability to handle standard development languages like Qualcomm's BREW and a version of Sun's Java developed just for mobile networks.

CELLPHONE-PLUS

“If you combine a mobile phone running Java with a service like Nextel that supports IP data services on that phone, you essentially have a desktop computer but with a smaller keyboard,” says Marc Mitchell, transportation practice director for Enterprise Information Solutions Inc.

Not that Mitchell expects drivers to be running spreadsheets on their phones, but rather the combination moves mobile data away from proprietary systems and opens them to any developer willing to adhere to the standards.

“It's basic economics,” he says. “All the expenses (of the network) are being spread across the much larger consumer marketplace. Proprietary systems can never achieve that level of volume, and they just won't be able to compete as Java-enable cellphone use becomes widespread.”

EIS' new transportation management system runs on the Nextel network, using handsets that include integrated GPS receivers for location and bar-code scanners for rapid data capture. “A lot of fleets are already using Nextel phones for voice, but even if they have to buy new handsets, the cost is still one-tenth of some proprietary systems,” says Mitchell.

While 2.5G certainly offers major benefits for trucking, the picture is far less clear with 3G, perhaps because even the communications industry is still be struggling to define the technologies for its next generation. Details aside, 3G should bring dramatically faster data rates, matching or perhaps exceeding current high-speed wired Internet connections like DSL and even T1 landlines.

But how would a truck fleet use such bandwidth?

Again, it's not completely clear. But public safety vocations might find wireless video streams valuable, suggests Fraser. Digital image capture and transfer might also have applications for truck security and safety, says Mitchell.

“High-quality digital imaging for documents or vehicle inspections on pickups could accelerate business processes,” says Chris Wolfe, president of Qualcomm's Wireless Business Solutions. “It would certainly speed up the process of turning in leased equipment. Also, remember that the bandwidth will be two-way, so you could send drivers training videos, safety messages and other [graphics-rich] communications to make them feel more connected with the company.”

As intriguing as ultra-high-speed bandwidths might be, a more important issue for trucking is wireless coverage, which continues to be a limitation even with the advances of 2.5G. “In trucking, the challenge has always been coverage, not speed,” says Mike Brown, vp-marketing for Aether Systems. “The 2.5G and 3G networks do open the door to new applications with their speed, but they don't do much for coverage. It's not just ‘What great things can I do?’ but also ‘Where can I do them?’”

METROPOLITAN FOCUS

While the major GSM and CDMA network operators are currently negotiating roaming agreements for the U.S., even with these agreements in place long-haul truckers would find GPRS and 1xRTT “slim” for their applications, says Brown. “The old [analog] cellular network was built out across the country, but 3G will stay focused on metro regions because they don't have a good business case to build out in rural areas. It'll grow over time, but I don't think you can assume it will ever grow enough to meet the complete needs of long-haul or over-the road fleets.”

Multi-modem systems like the one currently offered by Aether combine satellite and terrestrial networks to solve the coverage problem while addressing the higher cost of satellite communications.

“We find that 70% of our message traffic occurs on the terrestrial network, which makes sense since most messaging involves customers and customers tend to be in developed areas,” says Brown. “Still, that doesn't negate the importance and value of that other 30% coming from the open road.”

However, Brown does see how the speed of the next generation terrestrial networks could improve even multi-mode service. “It opens up storing and forwarding a lot more data that doesn't need to be sent in real-time — things like state-line crossings. It would also make web-based tools more practical, especially for owner-operators who wouldn't have to rely on a landline connection for things like load matching or email.”

So should you be ready “to go boldly” into this next generation of wireless data? Clearly, 2.5G has valuable benefits for fleets that aren't concerned about its coverage limitations. In many ways, the more advanced 3G sounds like a technology in search of a fleet business problem to solve.

Remember, though, that was the same knock on the original satellite systems. And like those, the potential of 3G is there waiting for someone to figure out how to use it.

A Next Generation for Satellite

For most, wireless services are divided into two separate categories, each with its own strengths — terrestrial networks offer high speed, satellite ones coverage. But as the pioneer in satellite data communications for trucking, as well as the developer of CDMA 3G technology, Qualcomm has a somewhat different perspective.

While it's OmniExpress service runs on the new CDMA terrestrial networks, Qualcomm's original OmniTRACS service is solely satellite based and will remain so, says Wolfe. However, the company is also about to announce a new generation satellite service, one that will feature much higher data speeds, he told FLEET OWNER.

“It's a ground-up re-engineering of how our system works to deliver higher data rates,” says Wolfe. “Essentially it puts CDMA on our existing satellite system.

“The upgrade will be easy for our current customers, since they can use the same brackets and cabling, and the data speeds will be phenomenal.”

While Wolfe won't talk about specific new applications that would take advantage of the higher speed, he points out that it would make it practical to broadcast software upgrades to all of its units simultaneously, making it both fast and economical to add system features as they are developed.

“When you consider that our satellites are currently underutilized at night, the higher speed lets you even consider science fiction scenarios like sending drivers audio books over the air,” says Wolfe. “We even have the mechanism in place for them to pay for that kind of service with our (pre-paid Internet services) Cab Card.”