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Eye On Technology: No Plug? No Problem

There's something new hanging in the air over hundreds of North American truck stops, and it has nothing to do with the smell of coffee or exhaust fumes. It's a wireless connection to the Internet.


There’s something new hanging in the air over hundreds of North American truck stops, and it has nothing to do with the smell of coffee or exhaust fumes. It’s a wireless connection to the Internet.

Wi-fi has become one of the hottest trends in the world of personal computing, with users powering up their laptops within 50 and 200 metres of so-called “hot spots” that offer the service, signing on to their Internet accounts, and enjoying the freedom of surfing the Web without a cord.

Perhaps truck stops were a natural venue for the technology. The lineups at their ever-expanding number of hard-wired Internet kiosks continue to grow. And every time a trucker wants to access the Net with his own equipment, he needs to pack up the laptop, carry it into the truck stop, and cart it around as he shops for everything from snacks to engine oil.

Wi-fi allows electronic transactions to be conducted from the comfort of the sleeper.

Wi-fi is already more affordable than other wireless communication options. It can cost a few dollars to send a single e-mail over a satellite system, and that equipment doesn’t allow users to surf the Web since it sends packets of information rather than the constant data streams that are needed for Internet access. Cellular phones and their modems may offer a wider range of coverage than wi-fi, but roaming charges can become expensive.

Wi-fi access is also fast. An 11Mbps wireless card is more than 100 times faster than a traditional dial-up connection, and it also eclipses the speeds of other wireless services, which typically deliver at a rate of 40 to 60 Kbs.

Given the higher speeds, the technology has the potential of being used for an array of trucking-specific applications. Truckers can scan a bill of lading and e-mail it to their dispatcher, or download a graphic-intensive map. Equip a cab with a digital camera, and the driver can transmit a picture of a damaged load. On a personal level, truckers will be able to surf the Web and enjoy services such as online banking when they’re on the road.

Truckstop.net is responsible for one of the largest wi-fi deployments to serve Canada’s trucking industry, offering the service at truck stops and weigh stations. It already has 32 locations in Canada, most of which are in Ontario, but a handful are also in each province between B.C. and Quebec.

“Our target is to have 100 sites by the end of the year in Canada, which would include truck stops and some commercial terminals. And we’re still talking to government folks about weigh stations, rest stops and even border points … Our main goal is to be every 300 to 400 miles on the Trans-Canada,” says Allan Meiusi, vice-president and COO of truckstop.net.

“Drivers in the future will be able to go into our locations and download a movie,” Meiusi adds of truckstop.net’s Video On Demand services expected in the coming year. Even bigger savings could come with the ability to make discounted telephone calls over the computer. “There’s a lot of options available there because you have so much bandwidth.”

The company’s service is already widely available south of the border, at truck stop chains including Petro Stopping Centers, Pilot Travel Centers and Love’s Travel Stops. “And we’re on schedule to have 510 locations by the end of March,” he says, referring to how as many as 40 to 50 sites are added every week.

Flying J has launched an aggressive strategy of its own. Between May and October last year, the truck stop chain deployed wi-fi hot spots at 152 locations in North America, including its Canadian facilities in London and Napanee, Ontario, and Vaudreuil, Que.

But this company is also using some guerilla tactics in its wireless campaign.

“We have at least 50 more interstate exchanges where we’re beaming it at our competitors’ parking lots,” says JJ Singh, Flying J’s vice-president, financial and communications services. Another 100 such sites are to be added in the next three months.

“As long as you have line of sight, you’re in business,” he says of the technology, referring to how the company is leasing land and putting antennas on buildings next to truck stops that fly competitive banners. “I’m sure they’re not too happy, but that’s life.”

THE SET-UP

Most service providers make their money by selling subscriptions for the Internet access, and each hot spot offers the promise of more subscribers.

Users who log on to a wi-fi hot spot are presented with a “splash page” through which they can sign in to existing accounts, or purchase time with their credit cards. Access ranges from an ad-hoc hourly or daily rate of a few dollars, to monthly and annual deals. Other than their credit cards, all they require is a laptop and one of the widely available PCMCIA slot cards or USB cards that communicate over a common standard known as 802.11b.

“But if you’re going to buy something on the cheap, be ready for issues,” Meiusi warns of wi-fi cards. Some inexpensive models are rated at 10 milliwatts, while others are rated at 10 times that number. “The more milliwatts, the more connectivity you’re going to get.”

However, there are limits to how easily the technology can be deployed into truck stops themselves.

“Wi-fi is very limited. It’s not a Wide Area Network,” explains Marc Choma of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. “You couldn’t set up a wi-fi to do the whole city of Ottawa.”

Meiusi suggests it can cost his company $8,000 to $25,000 to set up an individual site, depending on the size of a facility. (Transmitters and repeaters can be used to spread a hard-wired Internet signal throughout a truck stop, dealership or fleet yard.)

“A common truck stop that holds 100 trucks may have four access points, and each access point could host 100 simultaneous connections,” he says. It’s enough to allow 40 customers to access bandwidth-hogging content such as video at any given time.

THE USE

Singh admits to being surprised by the number of truckers who are already equipped with laptops. While there are no firm statistics, fleets and other sources lead him to believe that as many as 15 to 25 per cent of truckers have the digital boxes.

Many of them seem to be adding wireless cards as well. About 10,000 Flying J customers have annual subscriptions, which cost US$16.50 per month. And Singh says the number of customers on monthly and daily plans are “multiples of that.”

Meanwhile, users are enjoying the benefits of price wars.

“This thing is a commodity, just like telecom,” Singh says. “The lowest cost provider is going to win.”

“Almost every coffee shop seems to have a hot spot these days,” adds Choma, referring to some businesses that are offering the access as a value-added service.

Wi-fi isn’t just for the latte-sipping crowd. AT&T Wireless has signed a deal with Amtrak to offer access in major U.S. train stations. And the City of Fredericton, N.B. now offers wi-fi access in each municipal building. This magazine could be filled with nothing but announcements about new access points.

THE SECURITY

Most of the critiques about wi-fi access have surrounded security. Internet providers don’t want individual broadband customers to offer the access to the world at large. And some wi-fi users are actively searching for hot spots connected to unprotected computer networks, hacking in for free access.

“We don’t put security into our network because it could inhibit some of the applications,” Meiusi says of truckstop.net. “But any time you go onto the Internet or go into a banking site … you can tell from the site whether it’s got its own encryption layer.”

Of course, anyone who has turned on their proverbial electronic ears could conceivably pick signals out of the air. But a call made from a cellular phone can be picked up from even further away, he counters.

THE FUTURE

As with everything in the world of computing, wi-fi access appears to be growing at an exponential rate. Bell Mobility, Microcell Solutions (Fido), Rogers AT&T Wireless and TELUS Mobility announced last year that they planned to establish common standards for hot spots, allowing Canada’s 12 million wireless subscribers to access any accounts in the respective hot spot locations.

“It’ll be much like Interac,” explains Choma. “If you have a Royal Bank card, you don’t always have to go to a Royal Bank machine.”

Truck stops won’t be the last industry-related venue to adopt the technology, either. The Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations has helped set common standards, so wi-fi can be used to download diagnostic information from the Electronic Control Modules mounted on engine blocks. (A venture involving truckstop.net, Tennessee’s Department of Transportation and Volvo will soon see diagnostic information downloaded through wi-fi, Meiusi says as an example.)

And consider the Rockford Omnifi DMP — a 20Gb jukebox that can be mounted into the trunk of a car, updating music tracks and news from a home’s hard-wired PC. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be used in a truck. Other equipment is bound to follow.

The possibilities seem to reach as high as the sky.


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