March 29, 2004
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Old Dominion Freight Prepares for Wireless Upgrade

While wireless pioneers FedEx and UPS are well-known examples of wireless use in the transportation industry, the technologies they use are also appearing in other transportation companies. While it's still a minority of such companies that have deployed wireless technology "transportation companies don't buy cool stuff; they buy solutions for broken, critical operations," notes Dave Baildon, senior director of vertical marketing at wireless device provider Symbol Technologies that's beginning to change as the ROI from early adopters is more apparent. "They're not going to spend anything until there's business payoff for it," Baildon adds.

Case in point: Old Dominion Freight Line, a national freight firm based in Thomasville, N.C. About 2,400 of the company's drivers now carry handhelds that include delivery and pickup schedules, as well as an inventory of what is being carried. Bar-code scanners on the handhelds let the drivers scan packages as they are delivered, creating a proof-of-delivery record that speeds up invoicing and lets Old Dominion have accurate records of package status. Drivers synch their handhelds at any of the 130 company package centers each morning to get their current delivery and pickup list, as well as package inventory. As each package is delivered or picked up, the driver scans it in, and the handheld then transmits the data via the Motient paging network to Old Dominion's tracking systems.

While this has worked well, Old Dominion is upgrading its wireless system both in the field and at the package centers. This will speed billing, and provide real-time inventory and status information for both customers and Old Dominion planners, notes Barry Craver, the company's senior application development manager.

For drivers, the new handhelds will use the GPRS cellular networks to transmit delivery and pickup data. The faster GPRS networks provide more bandwidth, so Old Dominion will be able to transmit digital images of the delivery confirmation signatures, not just the date and time stamps. Sending the signature is key to being able to bill the customer more quickly. While Old Dominion has been interested in using GPRS and the similar CDMA2000 networks because of their greater bandwidth and speed, the company had stuck with the Motient paging network because of its broad coverage in the U.S. and Canada. (The company also issued its drivers Nextel cell phones as a backup communication device for some remote areas.) "Coverage is a big issue; when we started this project, there wasn't wide deployment of GPRS and CDMA2000 1XRTT," Craver notes, though that has changed in the last year.

The handhelds will also include Bluetooth and 802.11b wireless LAN radios. The 802.11 radios will be used to automatically update the handheld each time the driver comes into a package center, so drivers will no longer have to go to a cradle. Craver also envisions using the 802.11b networks to transmit maintenance logs, mileage logs, and other such data to Old Dominion's systems. Such data must be collected both to keep the vehicle fleet in good condition but also to satisfy various regulations governing driver hours and daily mileage meant to ensure drivers are not overworked and thus possible road hazards. There's no plan yet to use the Bluetooth capability, though Craver is investigating its use to transmit receipts to portable printers carried in the delivery trucks. Currently, drivers bring two copies of all receipts, one to bring back signed and one to give to the customer. A Bluetooth printer would eliminate the need for the second copy, while the automatic capture and transmittal of the customer signature would eliminate the need for the first.

Old Dominion has used wireless LANs in its package centers before, but only recently has switched to the 802.11b standard. The benefit was lower cost and broader application support, Craver notes. The company has found that wireless technology had an unexpected extra benefit: Old Dominion can take much of the wireless infrastructure with it when it moves operations from one location to another. And the cost of deploying a wireless network is no more than deploying a wired one, so there's no penalty for going wireless even if the company never leaves a specific facility.

One technology that Old Dominion is forgoing, at least for now, is Global Positioning System (GPS). These satellite-based location transmitters simply cost too much (about $1,500 per truck), given there is no critical need to know the location of each truck at all times. The delivery and pickup transmission via GPRS provide location data frequently enough to spot any issues such as a truck being behind schedule, Craver notes.

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at news@it-wireless.com .

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