Mobile radios with a single purpose are becoming a thing of the past. As technology moves forward, a new breed of multi-function radios is poised to fill a void left by other wireless services. However, the premature death sentence of the traditional land mobile radio is slowly being mitigated by a renewed optimism as manufacturers take another look at the mobile radio dispatch market and develop products that go beyond traditional voice.

Today's customers are demanding innovation, and manufacturers are delivering — somewhat surprisingly — via the familiar black box known as the two-way mobile radio. For example, when Kenwood Communications introduced its FleetSync messaging protocol in 1999, it successfully predicted the need to offer traditional dispatch customers more than they were receiving from their existing systems.

The introduction of FleetSync created tremendous opportunities for mobile radio dealers to offer text messaging, quick vehicle status messages — as well as emergency alerts and caller ID — to end users who had become accustomed to voice-only communications. These advanced features created many new sales opportunities for mobile radio dealers.

Cook's Communications is one of the dealers that capitalized on that innovation. Since 1946, Cook's, located in Fresno, Calif., has supplied traditional voice communications systems. Historically, that has ranged from the simplex low-band systems of the '50s, through the radio interconnect systems of the '60s and '70s, to the logic trunked radio, or LTR, systems that operate today. A few short years ago, many were predicting dealers like Cook's would fade away. However, through the use of value-added features such as FleetSync, Cook's is loading its radio systems today just as it did a decade ago.

In 2000, in response to declining voice-only radio sales, Cook's began seeking alternate ways of loading its specialized mobile radio, or SMR, systems. When Kenwood introduced its FleetSync protocol, Cook's immediately recognized the potential and, within months, designed a GPS kit that could be installed into a FleetSync-equipped mobile radio. This internal GPS kit utilized the same data modem that FleetSync used for messaging but could also transmit GPS location information in addition to the other advanced messaging features.

This opportunity led Cook's to develop FleetStat AVL vehicle tracking and mobile messaging software, which incorporates a 50-state map for vehicle location with the full messaging and caller ID features of the FleetSync messaging format. The software, combined with the internal GPS kits also developed by Cook's, resulted in a complete low-cost, turnkey package that could be offered to end users as well as other radio dealers nationwide. Today, less than five years later, Cook's has sold more than 300 complete mobile radio-based AVL systems to more than 75 different two-way radio dealers.

When Southwest Transportation Systems in Riverdale, Calif., needed a new communications system, it was looking for more than just voice dispatch. As the largest school bus service in Central California, it was critical that its communications system provided a reliable and safe means of maintaining driver contact with dispatch. With more than 80 buses to manage each school day, Southwest's goals included enhancing the safety of its passengers by incorporating vehicle location and messaging with traditional voice dispatch provided by the company's conventional UHF system that operated older non-Kenwood radios.

Cook's immediately saw the potential for the FleetSync format in this environment because it provides the built-in ability to send custom text messages as well as vehicle status messages to and from any vehicle in the fleet. In addition, FleetSync-equipped Kenwood radios could be programmed to enable dispatchers to be immediately notified if any of the buses had an emergency status.

With Southwest's messaging needs met, it was time to tackle its next requirement: vehicle location. Through FleetSync programming, Southwest was able to set its bus mobile radio units to automatically update each vehicle's GPS position at a preset interval. In addition, the FleetStat AVL software program provided the ability to obtain a real-time position of the vehicle with the click of a mouse.

Tracking the location of so many buses is one thing. Guaranteeing the safety of the passengers on board is another. Southwest transports 7000 children every day from 14 different school districts, a monumental responsibility.

For additional protection the company added the FleetSync emergency alert. Activated by a hidden foot switch, a driver can immediately and discreetly notify the dispatch center of any emergency situation such as a student fight, threat against the driver or medical emergency. When the emergency alert comes in, the FleetStat AVL software automatically turns the vehicle icon bright red and places the unit in the middle of the screen at the monitoring desk.

The software also flashes an alert box that indicates the bus number and that indicates the emergency status. Southwest also has the option of muting the radio traffic in the bus in an emergency situation. That way, no one except the driver knows the emergency alert has been activated. These features help Southwest assure safety and gives peace of mind to the parents of young passengers.

The need for instant communications that two-way radios provide is not going away. One look at the marketing campaigns of the major wireless carriers tells you that push-to-talk is not only needed, but is still a viable selling tool. However, as competition continues to erode sales opportunities for voice-only applications, the opportunities provided by advanced mobile radio applications continue to rise in importance. They not only provide end-user customers with more options and capabilities than ever before, but traditional land mobile radio dealers as well.

Darrin Fleming is Cook's Communications' general manager.

Southwest Transportation Co.

What: School bus service provider to rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley (Calif.)

Fleet Size: About 80 school buses

Challenge: Expanding capabilities of existing conventional UHF system

Solution: Implementation of FleetStat AVL, a platform based on Kenwood's FleetSync messaging protocol

Equipment used: Kenwood TK880 FleetSync-enhanced mobiles and base stations, Kenwood FleetSync-enabled portables and a Zetron 4010 desktop console at the dispatch station

Source: Cook's Communications