By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless magazine
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From our editors
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UPS Moves into Third Wireless Generation
United Parcel Service is a wireless pioneer. Like its competitor Federal Express, the package delivery service adopted wireless technologies about a decade ago to streamline workflow, have more-updated information systems, and keep better track of the vast network of warehouses, trucks, and packages. The incentives to be early wireless adopters are clear, given the facts that their workforces are mainly mobile, whether on the road or in cavernous warehouses, that even small service and productivity improvements add up significantly for companies dealing with millions of units, and that today's customers expect immediate status information on demand.
After using various proprietary technologies in the last decade to wirelessly transmit bar-code scanner data within the warehouse and to link trucks with dispatch centers, UPS is now embarking on its third generation of wireless. The scale of UPS's effort becomes apparent when you realize the company picks up about 12 million packages a day and keeps those packages in its system typically for a day or two.
But this time, UPS can choose to use standards-based technology for its wireless infrastructure. Such technology is cheaper to buy, develop for, and maintain, plus it provides greater security because more vendors can support it. "It's a great scenario for us," says Tamara Schwartz, UPS's director of global network services. Her group in Mahwah, N.J., directs the wireless technology development and installation globally for UPS. "We're trying to minimize the proprietary, customized stuff," she says. Its main supplier, Symbol Technologies, which has dominated the inventory and logistics market for wireless technology, has likewise moved its products to 802.11b and other standards from the proprietary wireless protocols it used to offer. UPS's Schwartz expects the third-generation effort to stay in place for five years, the typical life span of its previous wireless implementations.
As reported in the last issue of IT Wireless Insider, UPS is rolling out a combination of 802.11b and Bluetooth in its distribution centers. Bluetooth will connect bar-code scanners to a small belt-worn computer, which will in turn use 802.11b to connect to UPS's inventory-management and tracking systems. Schwartz estimates the new approach will reduce scanner maintenance costs by 30%, reduce downtime by 35%, and reduce the need for spare parts (for the cables between the scanner and computer that now often break) by 35%.
Schwartz's team looked at 802.11a, which runs at up to 54Mbps (versus 802.11b's 11Mbps maximum), but 802.11a's shorter transmission range became a significant hurdle, Schwartz says, especially in large warehouses. She believes 802.11a will find its place more in campus environments, where a large concentration of people in a smaller area need wireless access.
But this Bluetooth/802.11b scanner project is just part of the third-generation wireless technology plan for UPS, whose rollout will be complete by the end of 2004. Although the focus remains on wireless scanners at distribution centers, the company is also using 802.11 at some of its weights and scales, to transmit weight information automatically and to reduce wiring effort.
The company also wants to increase the connectivity between the dispatch centers and trucks. So far, that has meant reliance on the paging networks, which are also used by the Research in Motion BlackBerry service. But the paging networks are relatively slow and typically confined to urban and denser suburban areas, and UPS would like to add a faster network with broader geographic reach to the mix. In Europe, it is using data-enabled GSM networks for such transmission, and in the U.S., UPS is adopting the GSM-based GPRS technology being rolled out by several U.S. cellular providers in various regions. "We have some GPRS in the U.S. where there's no Motient [paging network] availability and to reduce analog [cellular's] costs," Schwartz says. She also expects to bring Bluetooth into UPS delivery vehicles, so the electronic pads that customers sign when they receive packages and the scanners that deliverypeople use to update package status can automatically update themselves via Bluetooth to a cellular- or paging-network-connected transmission terminal in the truck.
Another wireless technology that UPS is looking at is radiofrequency identification (RFID), which uses small tags that react to a passing signal and essentially bounce back an ID signal. These are now used to mark large loads, such as truck or air cargo containers, to help find them in huge lots, or to mark expensive or sensitive loads, so their absence is immediately known. RFID does require the use of fairly close-range transmitter/receivers, and the cost per tag is prohibitive to use widely, so Schwartz doesn't expect a major increase in RFID use at UPS until inexpensive, small tags and longer-range transmitter/receivers become available.
Although the big carriers, UPS and FedEx, have the most advanced wireless systems, other freight companies are following suit. For example, Old Dominion Freight Line and New Penn Motor Express, two smaller carriers, recently implemented wirelessly connected computers from Symbol Technologies in their delivery trucks, so package information could be updated via cellular connections to the dispatch center and so drivers could be alerted of any route, pickup, or other issues no matter where they are.
The logistics industry is not confined to delivery. Warehousing and manufacturing organizations have similar needs to track items as they move through the warehouse. For example, Corporate Express, a distributor of office supplies, has put 802.11b wireless LANs into 20 of its North American centers, in spaces ranging from 50,000 to 300,000 square feet. Corporate Express uses a voice system from Accucode that uses 802.11 to transmit computer voice instructions to workers on what items to pick up and where to move them. The use of voice means workers don't have to fumble with handhelds and small displays while working with palettes and boxes, while the ability to confirm an operation is complete gives the inventory management system real-time updates as to status and lets it quickly adjust workers' instructions based on that status. The company expects an ROI of more than 30%.
Companies like UPS, FedEx, and Corporate Express point the way, but it's clear that the logistics and transportation industries as a whole are making wireless technologies a standard part of their businesses. And they serve as a strong example to other industries that information systems can be brought to bear to whole segments of labor and services not traditionally thought of as data-based, when in fact the information about them -- whether package location or manufacturing status -- is a critical element of successful business process.
In an overseas development that may help push faster cellular data services in the U.S., IPWireless has announced that Walker Wireless, a New Zealand broadband telecommunications company, will commercially deploy IPWireless mobile broadband technology across the major New Zealand markets. This national deployment follows the completion of a successful commercial trial conducted in Auckland. IPWireless uses the UMTS-TDD technology on GSM-based third-generation (3G) cellular networks, instead of the voice-oriented WCDMA technology that major GSM carriers have said they'll use. UMTS-TDD is supposed to run at 3Mbps, compared to standard WCDMA's 500Kbps to 1Mbps. In the U.S., small cellular carriers in Maui, Hawaii; Missoula, Mont.; and Memphis have also deployed the IPWireless technology. (If only IPWireless could get a carrier in a more populated area to offer the technology, so U.S. businesses can see if it lives up to its promise!)
Meanwhile, NTT DoCoMo -- Japan's dominant mobile phone company -- says it will begin offering 3G wireless data services in four U.S. cities with AT&T Wireless Services by 2005. (NTT DoCoMo is a major shareholder in AT&T Wireless, and is widely believed to be directing AT&T's wireless data efforts.) The service, which will offer high-speed Internet access and face-to-face video calling, will be launched in San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, and San Diego. NTT DoCoMo launched its 3G service in Japan about 18 months to great fanfare, following a very successful launch of its i-mode data services two years before, but 3G usage did not take off as expected. The few European 3G launches have similarly had flat receptions. Access speed, coverage limits, and lack of worthwhile applications have hindered takeup.
In other notable product and technology news:
Got a great product or technology tip? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a new research report, Probe Research asserts that the
utopian promise of end-to-end mobile wireless IP networks is still several years
away from widespread commercial deployment due to daunting challenges from
technical, business-case, and economic standpoints. As a result, the underlying
data infrastructure is more likely to evolve as the overall 3G market matures,
concludes analyst David Chamberlain. In that evolution, Chamberlain expects
three waves of infrastructure deployment for advanced 2.5G and 3G
1. The first wave, now under way, involves the addition of data routing infrastructure plus appropriate radio access network modifications.
2. The second wave will come in the form of capacity upgrades, which will lag slightly behind the installation of WCDMA and deployment of CDMA2000 1XEV -- the two competing 3G technologies, with the former a successor to GSM and the latter to CDMA -- as cellular carriers judge the success of their 3G radio access networks.
3. The third stage will be the ultimate replacement of the circuit-switched voice infrastructure with end-to-end IP. Neither the second nor third wave is expected to occur within the next five years.
Chamberlain is correct that even five years is too soon to expect large-scale, data-oriented 3G implementation, despite the claims that the telecommunications industry and analyst communities made just a few years ago, pinpointing 2003-04 as the completion period for 3G. But this slowdown is no longer news, and whether explicitly or implicitly, 3G's ever-delayed promise is now widely accepted. That's why attention shifted rapidly in 2002 to wireless LANs based mainly on the 802.11 technologies. Although they don't have the ubiquity promised by cellular networks, they do offer the access speeds businesses need and expect, and they're relatively easy to implement both within an enterprise and at dedicated hot-spot locations. Plus they're actually available now.
While IT should keep an eye out on cellular data developments and consider some adoption of pre-3G technologies like GPRS for specific business needs, the focus should now go to access networks that businesses can actually deploy and gain real ROI from. For many, that will mean prosaic implementations of 802.11 in training rooms, conference rooms, and other internal, physically secure "hot spots" in their buildings. For others, that will mean higher-payoff implementations of 802.11 and other networks in new settings, such as warehouses, retail floors, and factory floors, where there's a real gain to be made by integrating very manual operations with modern data systems, as many logistics companies have already found.
From IT Wireless
As an IT professional, you know that wireless technologies such as 802.11 promise to provide significant benefits to your organization. Before you go full steam ahead, you need answers to your critical concerns about wireless LANs. Questions concerning security, compatibility and best practices, to name just a few. IT Wireless magazine is now here to help you figure it all out. Look for the debut issue in January/February 2003. Get the included email IT Wireless Insider newsletter now.
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