Wireless Nation

WiFi boom keeps drivers in touch with the world from out on the road.

With new technology and new venues developing all the time, WiFi, short for wireless fidelity, may quickly become a trucker’s best friend.

This fast, wireless Internet access allows anyone with a desktop or laptop PC with wireless capabilities to log on to a WiFi network, available at airports, hotels, coffee shops, bookstores and now, truckstops and rest areas.

According to the American Trucking Associations, 21 percent of U.S.-based truckers carry a laptop on board, and 14 percent use the Internet while traveling. That percentage is expected to rise, and WiFi providers want to cater to those truckers hungry for high-speed, wireless Internet access on the road.

In the past, truckers wanting Internet access had to carry a laptop to an Internet hub in or around a truckstop. Now, truckers can access the Internet from the comfort of their own cab if they park it near a hotspot – an area where the signal is available. Like a radio station, the signal loses strength as you travel away from the hotspot.

Users can pay a provider by the hour, day, month or year and have access to any of their network’s hotspots scattered across the continent.

Two of the most popular hotspot truckstop WiFi providers are Truckstop.net – available at Rip Griffin, Love’s, Pilot, Iowa 80, Petro and other truckstops – and Flying J, available at Flying J locations.

Truckstop.net currently has 512 hotspots, and the company hopes to have between 1,000 and 1,200 hotspots running soon. Truckstop.net subscription rates are $2.95 per hour, $5.95 per day, $29.95 for 30 days or $299 annually.

Flying J currently has more than 250 hotspots at Flying J locations and extended hotspot areas across the United States and Canada. Flying J subscription rates are $4.95 per day, $24.95 for one month, $19.95 monthly or $199.95 annually.

“A truck is a driver’s office, so we’re going to make sure they can get the conveniences away from home,” says Allan Meiusi, vice president of Truckstop.net. He says connected truckers do more that just surfing and e-mailing.

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“They’re looking for loads on the Internet. They’re checking out the weather; they’re checking out the traffic. They’re doing their online banking, and they’re becoming better businessmen,” he says. “It just makes them a heck of a lot more productive. They’re able to connect with their families in a whole new way. It’s a business tool just like the tires on your wheels.”

WiFi technology is continuing to grow at breakneck speed, Meiusi says.

“It’s changing every three to six months, and it’s getting better and stronger,” he says. “[We’re] making the signals faster, making the connection faster, plus it’s allowing us to deliver the signal in a different way. The type of technology we’re looking at now will mean we’ll need fewer antennas.

“It’s exciting, but at the same time we’re chasing our own tails.”

Even with the large number of hotspots available, the demand for more keeps growing.

“It’s one of those things that truckers really want to see,” Meiusi says.

A new broadband wireless solution in town is SiriCOMM, Inc. SiriCOMM is currently installed at 250-plus Pilot locations nationwide, with a near-term goal of having 1,000-plus strategically located hotspots to provide convenient access to users.

Company founders Hank Hoffman, David Mendez and Kory Dillman used their experience in trucking, telecommunications, the Internet and technology in general to develop SiriCOMM’s solution, which was designed specifically for the transportation industry.

“SiriCOMM provides ISP (Internet Service Provider) service for individual users,” says David Mendez, executive vice president of SiriCOMM, Inc. “However, the company’s emphasis is on fleet services that are designed to reduce costs, improve productivity, enhance safety and increase security.”

Many drivers say they wish truckstop WiFi hotspots were all under one network, available for one subscription rate at all truckstops across the nation.

“We certainly hear from drivers,” Meiusi says. “They don’t want to have to worry about swapping one account for another account. You already have to make a decision about where you’re going to fuel up based on the gas price. You don’t want to base where to fuel up on the subscription service.”

Michael Southers, whose machinery- and equipment-hauling company, Cody Express, uses two laptops on the road and agrees it would be easier to have a consolidated WiFi truckstop network.

“I don’t like the idea of different truckstops having their own service, since you can’t always get to that particular chain, which is why I like Truckstop.net,” says Southers, who spends at least an hour per day on the Internet. “I really consider Truckstop.net to be the best up and coming and definitely the one I would choose if I were to rely on truckstop-based WiFi.”

However, Southers says that rather than using a truckstop WiFi provider, he prefers the Verizon wireless Internet service, which can be accessed anywhere the Verizon service can be reached.

“I did quite a bit of research before purchasing the aircard from Verizon since it costs $350, and the service is $90 per month,” he says. “Our business depends heavily on the Internet and faxing capabilities, so the aircard seemed to be the best choice.”

Southers says the wireless aircard through Verizon is slower than truckstop WiFi, but because it can be accessed from the road as well as at the truckstop, “it is still a great service and helps many drivers,” Southers says.

“So far I have only used Flying J’s WiFi on a one-day subscription three times: twice because the area was not suitable for my aircard, and once because I needed a quick patch for my scanner and needed the speed of WiFi for the download.

“The WiFi speed has been excellent the few times I have used it.”

Besides truckstops, many retail establishments, public libraries and – most importantly for truckers – rest areas have jumped on the WiFi bandwagon. Texas recently became the latest state to offer free WiFi at rest areas, charging for use only in excess of two hours. Starting this month, the service will be available on U.S. 90 near Hondo and on Interstate 10 near Columbus.

The state’s transportation department signed with a vendor to provide wireless computer access at its 102 rest areas, with installation expected to be complete by October 2005.

In September, Michigan announced plans to bring WiFi to its rest areas, 10 state parks and welcome centers. The state is offering free access this year to Michigan.gov, the Michigan state government website, and next year to Michigan.org, a state-sponsored site promoting tourism, jobs and industry.

Otherwise, the service at Michigan recreational areas will cost $7.95 for a 24-hour session and $19.95 per month for unlimited access.

In June, Iowa equipped six rest areas with free WiFi as part of a six-month feasibility project.

In Wisconsin, the rest area near Kenosha on Interstate 94 offers free WiFi.

Like the expanding truckstop networks, more states are expected to offer WiFi as the technology improves and gains popularity.

What are your options?
Truckstop.net: Approximately 512 hotspots. Available at multiple travel center chain hotspots across the United States and Canada. $2.95 hourly, $5.95 daily, $29.95 monthly, $79.95 quarterly, $299.95 yearly. Customer Service: 1-800-854-8732. Website: www.truckstop.net

Flying J: Approximately 250 hotspots. Available at Flying J Travel Centers and Extended Area hotspots across the United States and Canada. $4.95 daily, $19.95 monthly (billed to credit card), $24.95 one month, $199.95 yearly. Customer service: 1-800-870-9068. Website: www.flyingj.com

TA Speedzone: Approximately 125 hotspots. Available at TravelCenters of America across the United States and Canada. $1.95 hourly, $4.95 daily, $24.95 monthly, $199.95 yearly. Customer Service: 1-866-776-8182. Website: www.tatravelcenters.com

SiriCOMM: Approximately 255 hotspots, with plans to expand to 1,000-plus hotspots. Available at most Pilot locations across the United States. Suggested retail: $29.95 monthly with discount programs available through SiriCOMM’s value-added reseller programs. Also annual subscription discount. Website: www.siricomm.com

Verizon Wireless Internet National Access: Available wherever Verizon Wireless service is reached. Requires a PC card for a laptop, sold separately. Monthly plans range from $35 for 150 minutes to $300 for 3,000 minutes, as well as unlimited minutes for $79.99.

Or try wifinder.com and search the Internet for a hotspot near you. PC cards and wireless Internet plans are also available from Cingular, Sprint and other wireless providers.

Restaurant and retail chains that offer free WiFi access
Apple Computers: Apple Stores nationwide.

Atlanta Bread Company: About 40 of the cafe chain’s locations from Colorado to
New Jersey. A list is available at www.atlantabread.com/wifi/.

Krystal: 50 of the fast-food chain’s locations from Texas to Florida. A list is available at www.krystal.com/about/ WiFi_locations.asp.

Panera Bread Company/St.Louis Bread Company: 400 cafes nationwide. Look for the Wi-Fi sticker in the window.

Port City Java: All the chain’s 30 locations from Texas to New Jersey.

Schlotzsky’s Cool Cloud Network: 40 of the deli chain’s locations from Arizona to the District of Columbia. A list is available at www.schlotzskys.com/wireless.html.

–Kriten Record. Jill Dun contributed to this report.

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