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Wi-Fi Hopes

TORONTO, Ont. - 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.


TORONTO, Ont. – 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 hardwired 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.

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,” says Allan Meiusi, vice-president and COO of truckstop.net.

“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.”

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, Ont., 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 hardwired 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 savings

Wi-fi is already more affordable than other wireless communication options.

It can cost a few dollars to send a single email 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 email 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.

“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 are a lot of options available there because you have so much bandwidth.”

“We’ll be handling a lot of services, whether it’s voice or video,” Singh adds.

“Whatever the infrastructure allows you to do.”

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.”

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