Consider the following list of mobile communications technologies. Most are probably familiar: onboard computers, linked to truckload fleet mainframes; cellular phones (including digital cellular); paging devices (1- and 2-way); and 2-way radio (digitally enhanced).
Now consider that every single one of those technologies is being linked to the Internet, the global interconnection of all computer networks.
Throw into the mix all the Internet-based communications, such as e-mail, Usenet newsgroups, and Web-based forums and live chat, and what do you have? Not chaos, as you might expect, but something near to it.
The good news is that out of this soup of electrons arises not a monster, but the benevolent face of opportunity. Getting data simply, cheaply, reliably and instantly from a far-flung work force is still of huge competitive value for truck fleet operators willing to re-think their operations.
Take a look at these examples:
• EDI — CF claims it is the first motor carrier to send EDI (electronic document interchange) data via the Internet. EDI is the paperless exchange of business documents by computer. Normally EDI involves direct computer-to-computer linkup with the shipper, or connection through a third-party network. By using a full-time Internet connection instead of the customary batch transfer by private line, CF saves communication costs and cuts down on delays, a double benefit.
• Paging — You can now send messages to a pager with any PC. One example of the category of software that makes this possible is ConnectSoft Inc.'s E-Mail Connection 3.0, a Windows-based e-mail management program that sends messages to pagers using the SkyTel Network.
• Ram Mobile Data's new Ramfirst service will offer more services than ordinary two-way paging, so the company calls it interactive paging. It too offers access to databases and e-mail across the Internet. Ramfirst customers will use the Interactive pager from Research in Motion, which is said to have a full keyboard despite being palm-sized.
• E-mail from the cab — Qualcomm-equipped truckers can now send e-mail messages to the Internet from their in-cab OmniTracs terminals. The trucking company must first obtain the software to do this, and right now it's available only for the IBM AS/400. Called CabCard Personal Communications, the system lets you charge both e-mail messages and telephone calls to a single prepaid phone card. E-mail messaging with this system should save you a bundle in calls home, as well as a lot of fumbling at truckstop diners looking for a telephone jack for the laptop.
• Internet from a cellular phone — AT&T's first-generation Internet-connected phone, the PocketNet, can send and receive e-mail, as well as other information. It is connected to the Internet, though at low speed, and with only a small text display. It's good for things like retrieving price lists, checking inventory, and getting directions. Since it's digital (CDPD, for cellular digital packet data), coverage is spotty (33% of the U.S. population vs. 97% for analog cellular). And at this point not all CDPD network service providers have added the software to make it work.
• Onboard computers — A company called Fleet.Net Inc., which recently acquired a license to use the IBM RoadRider onboard computer, connects onboards to fleet headquarters using a cellular radio link to the Internet. The service is called ITP/Fleet.Net Smart Traveler Services.
Rising overall retail sales — both e-commerce and traditional — and the pressure to deliver products more quickly has led to more truckload and LTL delivery points, not fewer, resulting in greater pressure on capacity.