Wi-Fi at the Truckstop

By Adam Stone

October 21, 2002

Breaker, breaker, good buddy -- 802.11 hotspots might make their next big splash in the world of commercial trucking.

If Hank Hoffman has his way, the $450 billion North American commercial trucking industry soon will be rolling into the world of wireless, with drivers tracking and trading vital information through the use of 802.11 hotspots placed strategically around the nation.

"What Wi-Fi offers is the ability to have a high bandwidth mechanism to communicate, at a very low price point, and with that I believe this industry truly will transform itself," said Hoffman, the CEO and president of SiriCOMM in Joplin, MO.

To date, the trucking industry has been a relatively conservative one, making few changes in response to the information revolution of the past decade. Hoffman launched his firm three years ago with the idea of delivering software applications that would help trucking companies better manage their costs -- but he ran into a problem early on.

In spite of all the new communications mechanisms on the market today, "there has not been a good way to include the drivers in the decision-making or cost-control functions of the company," he explained. Yet, as the ones who actually handle the product and clock the miles, it would seem the drivers are the people in the best position to help boost profitability.

That's when Hoffman hit on his idea for 802.11 hotspots. In his vision, Wi-Fi connectivity could be installed at truck stops around the nation, and then linked by satellite back to his server. A driver could log data at the hotpots, and that data would be automatically routed back to that driver's home office.

This could cut costs, for example, in the area of accounts-receivable aging. As it works today, a driver delivers a product and gets a signed freight bill. That bill will travel with the truck to the next post office, and then get mailed to the home office to be processed. Only then can an invoice be sent -- sometimes a week after delivery has been made.

With Hoffman's software, a driver would scan the signed freight bill and transmit it from the next truck stop on the road, getting it to the home office in a few hours.

Hoffman is not the only one to see a potential value for 802.11 in the trucking world. At national freight carrier FedEx for example, Wi-Fi hotspots already are helping to speed packages on their way.

"Today, at 30 percent of our largest hub facilities -- these large truck terminals where we process a lot of freight -- we have PC terminals with 802.11b built into them," said Jeff Amerine, FedEx's managing director for communications and network services. Those PCs "communicate to access points within the facilities, and they have taken the place of the wired networks in these rugged semi-outdoor environments."

So far, 802.11 networks have saved FedEx the expense of running wires out to thousands of loading docks. In the future, Amerine said, the freight carrier is looking at equipping drivers with 802.11-enabled devices that could be used to track freight at various checkpoints along the route.

"We are looking at 802.11b as really being a core network technology that will allow us to do some things that we have not been able to do effectively in the past," he said.

In addition to tracking freight, some say, 802.11 could help trucking companies to keep down the costs of repair and maintenance, and even to enhance public safety.

"You are dealing with four million trucks on the road, and this is heavy machinery, obviously," said Rick Iler, a managing director of the Boston-based private equity firm RJS Venture, which has given its financial backing to SiriCOMM.

"Not unlike railroads or airplanes, [trucks] represent a potential danger, and with wireless you would be able to monitor everything that is going on in that cab, much like a black box in an airplane," he said. "Wireless can provides the unobtrusive connectivity between the people at corporate and that truck driver at virtually any point across the country."

For that to happen, someone will have to build a nationwide Wi-Fi network, with hotspots at truck stops all along the nation's highways. Hoffman's ambitions do not run quite that grand, but he said he hopes to at least put the wheels in motion. He is testing his ideas at several beta sites now, and expects to do a phase-one rollout of hotspots at 400 major truck stops within the next few months.

Hoffman's biggest challenge still lies ahead: He still has to convince a very traditional industry to take a chance on this nontraditional solution. To do that, he said, the key will be to focus his marketing efforts less on the virtues of 802.11 as such, and more on the outcomes this technology could potentially generate.

"Right now 802.11 to most people is nothing more than a mechanism to connect to the Internet and surf," he said. "That is what most people see it as, whereas we see it as a way to get work done."

802.11 Planet Conference Want to launch your own Wireless ISP? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, CA. One of our sessions will cover Refining Your WISP Business Plan.

Comment and Contribute
(Maximum characters: 1200). You have
characters left.