Hotspot Road Trip, Part 5

By Jeff Vance

October 27, 2004

It seems the nation's highways are rapidly becoming linked to the information highway through a burgeoning network of unwired truck stops. Though surprising to some, it makes good sense for truckers—and travelers of all kinds.

Truckers aren't the first people to come to mind when you think of Wi-Fi early adopters, yet you're as likely to find a Wi-Fi signal in a truck stop as an urban coffee shop.

"This all happened very quickly," says Brian McCaul, vice president of marketing for TON Services, a division of Flying J. If you've traveled much on interstates, you've seen the billboards for Flying J, which operates truck stops coast to coast along major travel routes. "A year ago, there were only a handful of deployments, but today the trucking industry is adopting Wi-Fi at a rapid clip," McCaul says. "There's a higher penetration of Wi-Fi into trucking than most industries, and I'd estimate that nearly 75 percent of all major truck stops have deployed hotspots."

On my hotspot road trip, I've noticed that the Flying J's billboards now advertise hotspots, so when I crossed into Nebraska and needed a fuel stop, I figured it was time to get online with the truckers.

The Flying J in Gretna, Nebraska is typical of most truck stops: close to the interstate and adjacent to at least one competing truck stop. In the case of Flying J, the company considers Wi-Fi a competitive advantage, a reason to choose them over a next-door rival.

"Flying J has always looked at technology from a competitive standpoint," McCaul says. "In the case of Wi-Fi, we invested ahead of where we thought the market was in terms of actual users, but the adoption rate in the industry surprised us. Truck drivers, RVers, and business travelers all seemed to be just waiting for this type of service." To date, Flying J has rolled out about 270 hotspots, and while Flying J arguably pioneered the space, it is now facing competition from Truckstop.net.

I first encounter Truckstop.net in Fernley, Nevada. Fernley is a typical middle-of-nowhere desert town, population 8,500, but it also offers three different Wi-Fi options, all of which are located within truck stops. Two of the truck stop chains, Pilot and Love's, offer Truckstop.net signals, while a third, the Truck Inn, has its own independent network.

The Truck Inn combines a truck stop, gas station, restaurant, travel store, motel, and, this being Nevada, a casino, into a single trucker-focused complex. So, you can refuel, grab a sandwich, check your email, browse the Web for sports scores, and then drop some quarters in the video poker machine on your way back outside. In Nevada, slot machines have a ubiquity that Wi-Fi can only hope to match.

I only found the Truck Inn site by accident. I had pulled off the highway for gas and fired up the laptop to plot my next hotspot stop, which I figured would be in a more populated city on down the road, probably Reno. The Truck Inn didn't show up in my hotspot database, but my laptop found the signal.

When I checked my database, I was stunned to learn that there were two other hotspots in this tiny town. Seeing that Truckstop.net offered services at two of them, I figured I should check them out. I pushed on to the Pilot truck stop, and after a quick stop at a video poker machine to rid my pockets of that pesky spare change, I got online.

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