Trucking Toward Instant Online Connections

By Gerry Blackwell

November 11, 2004

SiriCOMM sells hardware directly to trucking companies to make sure drivers are wirelessly connected as they pull in to truck stops equipped with the company's data service.

Plain ordinary Internet connectivity was the killer app for public access Wi-Fi, but now more and more companies are finding ways to use the technology for targeted, high-value business solutions.

SiriCOMM, an application service provider (ASP) focused on the trucking industry, is a good case in point. The company was formed five years ago and has been publicly traded since 2002, but has been in development mode most of that time. Its business plan kicked into gear recently when it launched a nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots at 255 truck stops operated by Pilot Travel Centers.

"We're a five-year-old startup," quips SiriCOMM executive vice president Kory Dillman.

The company will sell anyone Internet access service—rates have not been set, but will be competitive, Dillman says. However, the hotspots are not only or even principally for plain ordinary Internet access. The company's main focus is selling its Beacon suite of mobile e-business applications designed for use by truck fleets, and its Pulse telemetric solution.

The Beacon suite costs $49.95 per month per truck, which also covers the lease-purchase of a Wi-Fi-enabled Palm Tungsten PDA for use by the driver. The applications include electronic freight billing, e-payment, driver pay settlement, driver logging and a remote job application function.

The SiriCOMM Pulse device connects to the truck's data bus and sends vehicle diagnostic data back to a trucking company. The company will develop custom applications around Pulse and is also working with third-party resellers such as Idling Solutions.

Idling Solutions markets a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system for trucks that runs off a separate battery. The product saves trucking companies money because it means drivers who sleep over in their trucks can now keep warm or cool and operate electronics without running the truck engine—which saves gas. It also earns Mobile Source Emission Reduction Credits (MERCs), which in turn earns cash rebates from government emission control agencies.

The Pulse device stores idling time data and uploads it whenever the driver associates with a SiriCOMM hotspot. The data is then analyzed by an independent auditor, which reports the company's MERCs to the appropriate government agencies.

SiriCOMM originally designed and built its network, which makes innovative use of satellite for backhaul, purely to provide connectivity for exchanging application data between a trucking company's trucks and its back office. Then it realized the network created all kinds of other business opportunities.

"There was a lot of internal discussion about how we should position ourselves," Dillman says. "Are we a service provider, or are we a solution provider? After some struggle, we've come to realize we're both."

The SiriCOMM network uses satellite for backhaul and remote servers at each hotspot for caching. Subscribers drive into a Pilot truck stop, their Wi-Fi device automatically associates with the SiriCOMM access point and the system begins syncing data from the onboard device to the SiriCOMM remote server at that location, and from the server to the onboard device.

The download data—e-mail addressed to the trucker, for example—is broadcast over the satellite network to all SiriCOMM remote servers and held until the recipient retrieves it during syncing. Then SiriCOMM uses the satellite broadcast capability to purge it from all servers.

The upload data (from the driver's device) is compressed and encrypted on the remote server and held—usually only for microseconds, but longer in the event of satellite rain fade—until there's a clear channel. If the satellite link is down, users can still sync, and still collect e-mail. Because the remote server also caches Web pages, they can even surf the Net.

"The biggest patent we have pending is the entire concept of how we're moving data over the network from the driver to the [trucking company] back office," Dillman says. "It's a pretty unique beast."

SiriCOMM uses satellite in the first place because it simplifies installations and reduces the number of network service providers it has to deal with. The alternative would be to use various local or regional wireline providers to provision T-1 connections. Also, because many of the sites are remote, T-1 service is unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

The Wi-Fi component is 802.11g-based. SiriCOMM took off-the-shelf access point, amplifier and antenna technology and integrated it into a ruggedized outdoor unit that provides both indoor and outdoor coverage at the Pilot sites.

"In all cases but one, we were able to [cover] both indoors and outdoors with one access point," Dillman says.

SiriCOMM has just completed deployment to the 255 Pilot sites. It owns and operates all the network infrastructure and pays Pilot a nominal site rental fee. It is also working on developing Pilot-specific applications that exploit the network—Dillman can't talk about specifics—and portal advertising opportunities.

The arrangement with Pilot is not exclusive, however. SiriCOMM will have hotspots at other commercial highway stops in future and also at trucking company terminals and other types of sites. "We'll be anywhere that is convenient for the truck driver or highway traveler," Dillman says.

The company's plan was to have 400 sites up and running by the end of 2004. Dillman admits it may not quite make this year's target, but expects to have 750 to 1,000 hotspots in place by the end of 2005. "It's a pretty aggressive growth plan," he says.

At the time of writing, SiriCOMM was still providing access service for free, but was planning to shift to charging a fee within the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, its main marketing focus is trucking companies, which it hopes will purchase Beacon subscriptions for all their vehicles.

"All I can say is we're negotiating with them," Dillman says. "We have several major opportunities on the table, but until we announce them, I can't talk about it."

Convincing trucking companies that they can build a hard-dollar business case around using the SiriCOMM application services will be a key to the company's success. All of the Beacon applications promise quantifiable cost savings and improvements in efficiency. The driver recruitment application is an interesting example.

Recruitment is a major problem in the trucking industry. Turn-over among driver-owners runs over 100 percent annually in some companies. Currently, trucking firms pay drivers from $100 to $2,000 for recommending an applicant they eventually hire. The driver meets somebody at a truck stop and persuades him to apply to his company. The problem is that by the time the company receives the candidate's mailed job application and does a background check, the person has often already accepted a job at another company.

The SiriCOMM application lets a driver help the prospective recruit fill in a job application using electronic forms right on the driver's Palm PDA. The applicant can even sign the forms. The driver sends the application to his company over the SiriCOMM network. The company can then use the data received to run an automated background check.

"In many cases, they can tell the applicant on the spot whether he's hired and even tell him to be somewhere to pick something up," Dillman says.

SiriCOMM also hopes to use its network and server infrastructure to distribute multimedia training that truckers will be able to download and complete to earn skill ratings. Trucking companies could then differentiate themselves when bidding for work by showing that their drivers have higher average skill ratings than competitors' drivers, Dillman says.

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