Got Hotspot?

Truckers are cruising on high-speed connections from the comfort of their cabs now that wireless Internet service has spread to hundreds of truck stops.

By the time you pick up this issue of Overdrive, more than 700 truck stops will offer high-speed, wireless Internet. In fact, an owner-operator parked at a truck stop might now be reading this same story online in his cab. Or maybe he’s surfing for loads, sending e-mail or downloading songs. And he’s doing it at blazing speeds with no wired connection.

That trucker and more than 20,000 others, by some estimates, are taking advantage of WiFi, or wireless fidelity, an old technology that transports computer signals over radio waves. For the past year, truck stop chains, carriers and high-tech companies have been scrambling to offer high-speed, wireless Internet service wherever truckers park. Now a trucker can log on to one of hundreds of trucking-related wireless sites, or hotspots, that have sprung up at Flying J, Petro, Pilot, Love’s, Rip Griffin and TravelCenters

of America locations, as well as dozens of independent truck stops. Thousands more are expected in the coming months. On most lanes, the next wireless Internet location is now just a few miles away.

“I’m writing quite a bit more e-mail,” says owner-operator Dave Hein. The trucker from Good Thunder, Minn., bought a computer and a WiFi card in late August, soon after Flying J began introducing WiFi at its 150 company-owned truck stops. Now when he shuts down for a night, he opens his Dell laptop and connects with his wife. “I can get online with her and chat for hours. We use Yahoo chat and I have a Web camera in the cab. We can chat all night, and it’s free.”

The chat part is free, at least; the year subscription he bought to Flying J’s service cost about $200, but it gives him unlimited access at any of the company’s sites and 75 other locations where it has raised WiFi antennas. Flying J was the first truck stop chain to roll out such service, but every major chain and many independents are now offering similar high-speed amenities. Truckstop.net, which has partnered with Petro, Rip Griffin, Sap Bros., Loves and dozens of independents, plans to put WiFi in thousands of places truckers frequent. To do so, the company has partnered with telecomm giant Sprint.

Allan Meiusi, vice president and chief operating officer for Truckstop.net, says WiFi technology has matured, and more truckers carry laptops or PDAs, making the market attractive for companies like his. “Depending on whose statistics you use, we figured about 25 percent of truckers have computers in their trucks,” Meiusi says. “The numbers are more skewed to owner-operators.”

In the past, truckers who carried laptops to manage their business often had to go to great lengths to get online. Usually, getting on the information superhighway meant slogging the computer through a truck stop parking lot in search of a data port- or phone-equipped restaurant booth. “WiFi is a lot more convenient than hooking into PNV bollards or going into the restaurant to plug into a data jack,” says Don Wilson, project manager for TA’s WiFi effort.

It’s also cheaper than some of the alternatives drivers have used for Internet access. Crete Carriers driver Curtis Nunley has used an expensive national wireless service from Verizon that has meant putting up with slow dialup speeds and spotty coverage. “I have to have Internet access now. I do too much with it,” Nunley says. He manages three bank accounts, his 401(k) retirement account and a Roth IRA, as well as e-mail and other Web activity. But the wireless card, which piggybacks on Verizon’s cellular network, is sluggish. At 56k, the $75-a-month service runs only a little faster than most dial-up services, making some activities – like downloading video or large files – frustrating. So he’s going to sign up with Truckstop.net for the higher-speed service.

Generally, WiFi users see speeds similar to those via cable modem or T1 line, such as you might find in an office or library. That’s about 20 times faster than 56k, which is the best speed offered through most traditional dial-up services, such as America Online. (Idleaire, which is just beginning to offer Wi-Fi, already offers high-speed access through the wired computers that connect to its window units.) How fast you connect on WiFi depends on the capability of your hardware, the strength of the WiFi radio signal and how many others are using the same signal.

Texan Steve Hopper, a company driver for Indian River Transport, added a WiFi card to his Dell laptop in September. Getting the card installed and signing up was easy. “I actually had the whole thing up and running in 10 minutes,” Hopper says. “It’s definitely much, much easier than having to drag the whole mess into the truck stop and deal with dial-up speeds.”

Many laptops and some PDAs have built-in wireless networking, says Richard Tisdale, chief information officer for Petro Stopping Centers, which has partnered with Truckstop.net. “It’s gotten to the point now where when you buy a laptop, you have to ask for it not to be in there,” Tisdale says. “More than 85 percent sold this year will have WiFi built into them.”

At a truck stop, the wireless Internet service provider sets up a series of directional radio antennas that blanket the parking area and store and send signals back and forth between the card in the laptop and the truck stop’s Web server. That server is typically plugged into a T1 line, a broadband high-speed cable that forms the backbone of the Internet.
Eventually, truck stops will use this same platform to sell movies and other services to drivers, Tisdale says. “Imagine a driver pulls in, flips open his laptop and decides to download a movie. He goes in to have dinner, comes back out and the movie is ready to go.”

Entertainment and other personal use of the Internet is a small part of the wireless picture, says J.J. Singh, vice president of financial and communications services at Flying J. The hotspots will provide owner-operators and small fleets services that bigger fleets have had for years. Access won’t just improve a driver’s quality of life, but the quality of his business.

“A single owner-operator can deliver a load, scan his bill of lading in, connect to WiFi and then forward it on,” Singh says. “They can get paid quicker. That takes 45 days in some places.” Flying J has inked a deal with several carriers, including a 2,000-truck fleet based on the West Coast, to provide this kind of service.

A future wireless provider, SiriCOMM, says it plans to equip drivers in its clients’ fleets with a WiFi-enabled PDA, allowing them to electronically file freight bills, gather electronic signatures, receive dispatch instructions and even submit logs. The company has deployed its service at a few sites and plans to have hotspots no more than two hours apart on major freight routes. Drivers will collect data via the PDA, and when they enter a hotspot, the data will automatically be downloaded. “Our goal is to take all the paper out of the process,” says Kory Dillman, the company’s executive vice president.

Despite the accolades, there are limitations to WiFi. Hotspots aren’t everywhere, which means real-time freight tracking and continuous Internet connections are out for truckers. There are also a variety of service providers, which means users expecting service at most truck stops will need multiple subscriptions. That frustrates owner-operator Dave Hein.

“I would like to see all these truck stop chains get together and offer one flat fee,” Hein says. Some providers may ultimately allow truckers to roam on another provider’s network, as cell phone companies do. The price also may drop low enough or the business benefits expand enough to make several subscriptions affordable.

Other technical drawbacks exist. Some users complain that the service slows down when too many other users log on. Overlapping hotspots from neighboring truck stops can also cause signal problems, something service providers say they’re working on. Geography, parking lot size, even metal awnings have caused problems, but truck stop chains say those issues have been largely worked out, and reliability as well as access speed have improved.

For truckers like Steve Hopper, who estimates he spent $1,100 for a laptop, $70 for a wireless card and $99 for a year of service, high-speed access has offered him the comforts of home and instant communication when he rests. Having several options to choose from has been great, too. He uses Flying J’s service most of the time, but he’s checked out Truckstop.net’s service, too. “I was pretty impressed,” he says. “They just don’t have enough coverage in my freight lanes yet. I can also sometimes find open networks near customers and at hotels.”

Hein says he’s delighted the service has finally arrived. “I’ve had the Internet at home for about six years,” he says. “All that time, I thought this would be really cool if a guy could have this in his truck. Now it’s a great way to kill time if I’m laid over, and it beats the heck out of dragging my laptop across the parking lot.”


GETTING STARTED

Taking advantage of a truck stop WiFi hotspot requires, in addition to a service subscription, either a WiFi-equipped PDA or laptop, or a computer equipped with an 802.11b or 802.11g wireless network card, which fits into a laptop’s PCMCIA slot. Typical hardware costs are:

  • WiFi-equipped PDA: $500 and up.
  • WiFi-equipped laptop: $1,300 and up.
  • Wireless network card: $50 to $100.
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