Hotspot Road Trip, Part 5

Hotspot Road Trip, Part 5

By Jeff Vance

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.

In August, Truckstop.net brought its 500th hotspot online at the Baker Truck Corral in Baker City, Oregon. The company also recently inked a roaming deal with Sprint.

“With this Wi-Fi service agreement, Sprint and Truckstop.net continue to help our customers stay connected, whether they’re in an airport, at a hotel, or out on the open road,” says Wes Dittmer, general manager of WLAN services at Sprint. Truckstop.net CEO Scott Moscrip adds that this partnership would extend the network’s reach beyond truckers to other travelers.

“This is an obvious compliment to our ability to service mobile sales forces, RVers, and other non-transportation oriented users who frequent truck stops and travel plazas during their time on the road,” Moscrip says.

Flying J’s Brian McCaul believes that competition is a good thing in this sector. “Typical business travelers have ubiquitous coverage because they’re in airports, business-class hotels, and conference centers,” he says. “Truckers don’t have that luxury, especially out west, so the more options they have, the better.” McCaul believes that there’s enough demand to support two competing truck-stop networks, and he notes that the demographic groups that Flying J and Truckstop.net serve insulate them from some of the issues that other hotspot WISPs face.

For truckers, even if a small town along their route has a hotspot, it isn’t necessarily useful for them because a trip off of the interstate and into town to visit a Starbucks hotspot is impractical. Not only do coffee houses cater more to office workers than truckers, but there’s also the basic matter of where to park the truck. And since time is always a factor, many truckers want to multi-task, checking email during lunch or while the truck is being refueled. Moreover, truck stops are insulated from competition from the free sites cropping up in many cities. Again, it’s just not practical for highway travelers, and especially truckers, to seek them out. As long as the price point is reasonable, McCaul believes that there will be plenty of truck-stop Wi-Fi patrons.

For the moment, Wi-Fi truck stops are focusing on access, but according to McCaul, a number of new wireless applications will soon follow—everything from asset tracking and telematics to automated trip planning apps that plot affordable routes based on fuel prices and tolls.

With Wi-Fi in place, the future of the high-tech trucker could involve linked systems communicating to one another. So, the in-vehicle safety system could tell the route planning system that the driver has been on the road long enough to need a break, and an alert can then be sent to the driver to pull off at the next exit. All of these systems could be swapping data over Wi-Fi. Even the simple capability of wirelessly sending mileage, load, and vehicle information to each state’s weight station could save truckers significant time and money.


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