Logistics: The long road to 3G

Mobile computing and telemetry are well established in transport and logistics, so IT managers in the sector should get ready for...

Mobile computing and telemetry are well established in transport and logistics, so IT managers in the sector should get ready for the 3G salesmen to come knocking on their doors. Will they keep on trucking or embrace the new age?

If there is one area where wireless applications and services are already proving their worth, it is logistics.

Research conducted by iAnywhere, the mobile and wireless arm of Sybase, discovered that seven out of ten transport and logistics companies believe mobile technologies are key to helping their business become more competitive.

However, the technology powering these applications is still relatively immature, with many services relying on the primarily voice-based GSM network. Now, new mobile networking technologies such as GPRS and 3G are set to increase the efficiency and capabilities of wireless applications. Or are they?

"The first thing to bear in mind is that 3G is a new radio access technology," says Jeremy Green, research director with the Wireless division at Ovum. "The core is largely a carry over from GSM and GPRS."

Staking out the mobile market
Traditional systems management giant Computer Associates, has been making a major push into the mobile e-business space over the past 12 months, so much so that chief technology officer Yogesh Gupta believes it will impact on every part of its business.

"If you come to CA three years from now, pretty much every part of the whole portfolio will be touched by wireless," he says.

However, while CA is firmly backing the mobile notion, Gupta believes the acceptance of 3G will be relatively slow. "I disagree with those who say people won't move to 3G, but I don't think people will rush to it. It will be an evolutionary change. Sometimes old and new technologies happen together.

"Just look what IBM is doing with Linux on the mainframe. Whether it's GSM, or GPRS or 3G [in logistics applications] doesn't matter."

Access network provider Transcomm is a major player in the logistics field. Customers include UPS, TNT, Federal Express, Business Post, the AA, the RAC, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury, Toys R Us, and Mars.

But unlike many logistics offerings its Mobitex network does not operate across GSM. Instead it uses an independent network that was developed by Ericsson in the 1980s for a customer which has since been turned into a commercial offering.

Robert Leach, Transcomm sales director, doesn't think it is necessary to use voice-based networks to run logistics applications. "The jury's out on what the take-up of 3G will be," he says.

Is 3G really necessary?
"3G has a fantastically large bandwidth which is not always necessary for logistics. Mobitex is packet switched, so essentially, it works in the same way that e-mail is delivered on the office LAN. You don't need to know that someone has sent you an e-mail because it has been delivered."

The high bandwidth of 3G is not necessarily a factor in the logistics arena. "Logistics applications are narrow band," explains Ovum's Green. "Very small pieces of data are sent down the network and for the most part you're not talking about applications that are bandwidth hungry.

"However, they are 'bursty': lots of small send and receives, which is ideally suited to a packet-based network. Connection speeds are important but bandwidth isn't."

In order for 3G to carve a niche for itself within the logistics space, network operators will have put their weight behind it. Ovum's Green doesn't believe that logistics will be a priority for operators embarking on 3G, not least because they will have to develop new access devices.

"The devices in logistics are going to be expensive. The specialised device you need for a logistics application is probably not high on the list for most operators getting into 3G," Green says.

All present and correct?
Rachael Sizeland, channel marketing manager at Vodafone, doesn't think we should discount existing technologies. "Much has been made of technologies such as GPRS and 3G. However, with the excitement surrounding these breakthroughs, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that existing GSM technology is perfectly suited to the delivery of telematic information," she says.

Vodafone has been working with the Ford Motor Corporation to develop fordtelematics - a factory-fitted integrated in-car communication system that comprises of satellite positioning and voice-activated telephony.

The unit is based on a GSM phone module that is integrated into the car's audio system using the car's radio pre-set buttons.

Features include an SOS function that will alert the emergency services to the exact point of the car should it be involved in an accident, advice on services and places of interest in the area, traffic information, and hands free activation of phone numbers and operator services.

"It is clear that the existing GSM technology has much to offer the transportation industry with GPRS, and later, 3G set to enable considerable enhancements to these services," Sizeland explains.

"However, the availability of these new services should not blind organisations to what can be achieved today."

While the iAnywhere research showed there was much interest in wireless logistics applications and services, just 16% of transport, logistics and fleet companies have a fully automated process to capture basic logistical information.

Ovum's Green points out that many organisations are waiting for the arrival of 3G in the belief that it will be superior to existing wireless networks.

"There is an opinion that GPRS and 2.5G are intermediary technologies, which is the wrong opinion," he says.

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