Cell phone manufacturers ring in new capabilities

by Harry Rudolfs

TORONTO, Ont. – Cellular phones have been part of a professional driver’s tool belt for over a decade. No slouches when it comes to operating communications gadgets, truck drivers were quick to embrace the technology. A driver could call home and dispatch without leaving the cab and customers could quickly find out where their freight was.

In those early days coverage was spotty. And the phones were expensive and awkward. But some of the classic models still inspire loyalty. I know a millionaire who drives around Eastern Ontario talking on one of those ancient car phones that looks like a giant C-clamp.

Another man, Dennis Higgs, an owner/operator from Woodstock, N.B., couldn’t wait to show me the vintage Motorola bag phone that plugs into his cigarette lighter. The unit is about 15 years old and has logged over 47,000 minutes of air time. But it puts out an outstanding three watts of power, and he’s never been out of range anywhere in North America. “I like it so much that I just bought another one for 50 bucks,” he said.

Almost 80 per cent of the general population has at least one cell phone and truck drivers probably mirror that ratio. Often drivers carry two cells: a personal flip phone to stay in touch with the family, and another, often a Telus Mike model, assigned by their company.

The Telus Mike functions as a phone and a two-way radio. Its push button option allows for group calling and individual paging. Recently Bell Mobility has entered the field with its own version of the Mike, called the “10-4 Phone.”

Like its competitor, the 10-4 offers Canada-wide coverage. A top end Sanyo 10-4-enabled phone comes with voice mail, Internet access and games, as well as the group calling options.

“We’ve had some good feedback from customers,” according to Poalo Pasquini, of Bell Mobility, media relations.

Flip phones are all the rage for personal use. About the size of a tape measure, they fit in your pocket and a fold-up panel usually displays a small TV screen.

This allows you to receive photos, play games, send text messages and maybe stream videos. You can buy these phones outright and pay anywhere from $20 to $400, or you can opt for a multi-year plan that includes a free phone.

Personally, I would choose a basic model that’s cheap and easy to replace – in case you lose it, drop it in a puddle, or run over it with the duals. It should be easy to recharge, and you might want to consider getting one with a built-in camera.

These cameras don’t necessarily take great pictures. But one might save your hide if you run into trouble. For instance, you might pick up a trailer at 2 a.m. with a gaping hole in the side. The cell phone camera allows you to document the time when you picked up the trailer and send the picture instantly to interested parties like safety managers, dispatchers or your own e-mail for a personal record.

We are bombarded with so many deals on personal mobility phones that I won’t try to list them. But options such as voice mail, call forwarding, call display, e-mail and text messaging might be things to consider. Text messaging is popular with some drivers when they are trying to meet up with each other at a truck stop or rest area.

Each text message costs about 15 cents to send and nothing to receive so it is a cheap way to communicate.

Some cells have limited Internet access and full connections can be had on high-end models like the Blackberry or Palm Trio. But this is an expensive way to surf. For now, a laptop is probably a better choice if you’re serious about playing on the Internet while you’re on the road (wireless and plug-in connections are available in most big truck stops).

Unlimited long distance calling after 6 p.m. is important for some drivers and obtainable with some plans for an extra $25 or $30. I know a shunt driver who keeps his headset on all night, talking to his girlfriend in St. Catharines, Ont. while he’s moving trailers in Toronto.

Most important, you should make the plan fit your needs. A Yanke driver told me he signed a three-year contract for 1,000 minutes per month for $170. However, he usually exceeds that amount and his monthly bill sometimes tops $300!

Another disadvantage with multi-year deals is that something better might come along that’s cheaper and has more options. Things are moving quickly in the cellular business and new technologies and systems are making the old ones obsolete.

Blue tooth, available on some cells, is a protocol that allows for short distance communication without cables.

This includes applications like hands free headsets, real time proofs of delivery, and on-board faxing capabilities through devices like a Blackberry.

And tracking systems using GPS phones could be a cheaper way to collect data on loads and power equipment.

“Increasingly, transport companies are using terrestrial cellular networks to transmit location data about their fleets,” according to Robert Currie of Telus Mobility Solutions.

“Were going to keep seeing adoption of this simple tracking and mapping,” he said. “More than just tracking, we’re using the handset to send and receive messages as well.”

Mansell Nelson, vice-president, planning and business development with Rogers Business Solutions, suggests wireless technologies will eliminate most of the paperwork truck drivers are now doing.

“It’s the same technology that’s in your phone, only a different format,” he says. Rogers’ mForm system uses HP iPAQs to capture signatures in real time.

The customer signs a virtual bill of lading with a stylus and the proof of delivery is transmitted directly back to the dispatcher or head office.

“Smaller fleets are certainly a target for us,” says Nelson. “It was always the big trucking companies that could afford the technology. We’re bringing it down to a monthly manageable fee for smaller businesses.”

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