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New Uses for Highway Wi-Fi

When we first talked to SiriCOMM in 2002, the company was angling for a niche, rolling out Wi-Fi hotspots at truck stops nationwide. Two and a half years later, the company has shown that Wi-Fi success can be found in the least likely of places.

Through a deal with Pilot Travel Centers, the company has implemented some 260 hotspots nationwide, allowing truck drivers to tap the Internet and communicate scheduling and other data back to home base without interrupting their routes. Now, SiriCOMM has set its sights on diversifying its offerings, all of which are aimed at making the vast trucking industry more efficient and cost-effective for drivers and fleet operators.

"We started toying with Wi-Fi in 2000, when an access point ran about $2,000," says CEO Hank Hoffman. "Since then, with the lower cost and the advances in bandwidth, it has become clear to us that Wi-Fi would be a great way to move data from a vehicle. We have always believed that, and it has certainly worked out that way."

Most recently, SiriCOMM has begun to roll out Wi-Fi at highway weigh stations, as a way to speed transmission of information to a range of interested parties.

Say an inspector finds a violation on a vehicle. Using a 56K connection (still the norm at most weigh stations), or passing on that violation information through the regular mail, it can be hard for fleet operators to fix the problem in a timely manner. "As it happens today, fleets don't get very timely feedback, so it is difficult for them to take corrective action when a truck is out of service or having a problem," Hoffman says.

Wi-Fi allows inspectors to get the information back to a central database, and from there, back to the fleet operator via satellite. At the same time, a Wi-Fi connection to local police patrols helps them know what vehicles to watch out for. "For roadside law enforcement, this will be a huge help," Hoffman says. "We're going to get the bad guys on the road."

Hoffman won't talk about revenue figures, but the continued expansion of his product lines suggests that his previous offerings have hit the mark. It's a good example of the increasingly-accepted maxim that Wi-Fi works best when it's applied to a specific business need.

In the trucking industry, that's the need for greater efficiency and lower costs. Take, for instance, the issue of accounts-receivable aging. As it works today, a driver delivers a product and gets a signed freight bill. That bill travels with the truck to the next post office, and then gets mailed back to the home office. Finally, the invoice can be sent, sometimes as much as a week after the delivery has been made.

With Hoffman's truck stop deployments, the driver can transmit the freight bill information via Wi-Fi to satellite to the home office, thus cutting down the billing process from days to hours.

Analysts say there's a certain logic at work here. After all, wireless capability naturally lends itself to use by people on the go. "Automotive and transportation are inherently good places for Wi-Fi because of access modality—that is, people and products in motion," says JupiterResearch Senior Analyst Jay Horwitz.

SiriCOMM has one other lesson to teach would-be Wi-Fi applications developers. It has to do with creativity.

This gets a tad wonky, but follow along. Basically, truckers get federal and environmental credits for running their vehicles at optimum efficiency. SiriCOMM uses wireless applications to gather engine data, in order to demonstrate that the motor is purring along smoothly. When the truck encounters a Wi-Fi connection, that information is pushed automatically and passively back to a data-collection system where it is compiled in the service of earning those credits.

This implementation really underscores the entire SiriCOMM lesson -- that is, that these things are not always obvious.

Wi-Fi for truckers? Wireless transmission of engine data for federal environmental credits? We are a long way from coffee-shop hotspots here, and that is just the point. SiriCOMM's success thus far suggests that we have only just scratched the surface of potential wireless networking ideas. There remain any number of uncharted business applications yet to be explored.