Mobile data: A realistic view Software is the key to a mobile data system. The hardware and radio frequency (RF) link only facilitate the software. Define the customer need, select the software and match it with the necessary hardware and radio equipment.
Mobile data: The two most hyped words in the last 10 years since cellular phones. It seems as though everyone is on the mobile data bandwagon, yet there seems to be a real lack of knowledge and a mystique about mobile data. Mobile data covers a wide range of applications. In its simplest form, mobile data is a “text”-based or “digital” form of communications. Digital, in this context, is not to be confused with digital signaling, but a digital or text-displayed format instead of voice.
The earliest introduction of widely used mobile data could be considered the display or “digital” pager. The dominant format of pagers has shifted first from “tone-only” to “tone-and-voice” to either numeric or alphanumeric display. Other common forms of data communications include fax, E-mail, wireless computing via cellular or radio, wireless telemetry, and supervisory communications and data acquisition (SCADA). Mobile data can take any of these forms or more, but it does mean “on the go, mobile” as opposed to fixed, point-to-point communications.
The components of a mobile data system can be broken down into three major parts.
1. Hardware — This includes the display or interface device, the modems to send and receive the data, base controllers to manage the data and the associated cables.
2. RF link — The RF link, or RF pipe, as it is known, informally, is the wireless medium you choose for your customer to transport the appropriate data. This would include cellular phone service, private and public radio systems, satellite, spread-spectrum and many other types of wireless service.
3. Software — This includes the communication drivers for the modems to talk to each other, the program the controller uses to manage the data, any interface software to a host computer system, the application the field user sees, the program the dispatcher may see and many other areas where software comes into play.
Make no mistake, mobile data is a software solution to a hardware problem. Voice communications can be too slow, unreliable and even inappropriate for the transmission of most mobile data applications. Available spectrum is a real problem in most markets today. Mobile data, conversely, is fast, reliable and secure, and can provide unattended communications.
The key to designing and selling a mobile data system begins with the software. The hardware and the RF link are there only to facilitate the software. Certainly, all the component parts, properly in sync with each other, are necessary for a satisfied customer. Contrary to the hopes of some hardware manufacturers, just building the hardware does not mean that customers will buy it. Pen-based computers are a good example.
A well-designed mobile data system starts with the application. Starting at that point means asking the customer what use they have for their radios or phones now, if they have them. “What type of data is coming and going via voice communications?” you might ask. “Why do you page your fleet vehicle drivers? What does your paperwork load look like? How do you do business?” The answers to these and other questions help to get a clear picture of how a customer does business and, ultimately, how mobile data can help. This process, when done in depth and in great detail, draws the road map to the mobile data system.
A basic knowledge of the types of mobile data systems is important for the interviewer. Without the proper foundation of mobile data systems or the components, the interviewer may not ask the right questions. Leaving aside the obvious systems of fax, E-mail, digital paging and file transfer, let us look at the more advanced systems.
Status and message In one of its simplest forms, a mobile data system could be used to replace a radio system and to convert the current voice messages to text messages displayed on a screen at both ends. Status-and-message terminals generally require the driver to push only one or two buttons to alert dispatch of a status change. The actual status depends on the business and what the dispatcher wants to know, and status information usually is repetitive. In addition, some systems allow the driver to enter some limited variable information that could be used for tracking mileage, job numbers, weight and hours. The dispatcher, on the other hand, might see a message or graphic to signify the new status of the driver on a computer screen. Some systems keep this status on the screen for future reference and change the display when the driver sends an updated signal.
Status notification over radio, a one-way transmission from the field unit, has been in use for many years. Newer two-way units allow messages to be transmitted back to the driver. This could be signaling lights to tell the driver about the next stop or text messages, either pre-written (canned) or free-hand. Most systems make provision in the vehicle’s data terminal to receive a message whether the driver is present or not, thereby speeding up the process. Most systems also acknowledge the receipt of the message or status to avoid the need for retrying, or sending the message again and again until the driver responds.
The real advantage to this type of system is that it lets the dispatcher deal with repetitive information quickly, almost casually, because it is the exceptions that require attention. Units that remain in a certain status too long or that have gone out of sequence, or drivers who indicate that they are lost or that their jobs have been cancelled, involve situations that may require special attention. It is the repetitive, non-exceptional voice communications that take up most of the time and effort and do not allow for sufficient attention to exceptions. As much as 85% of the communications between the office and field personnel are routine or repetitive. This type of information is best suited to mobile data instead of voice radio.
There are several good status and message systems on the market. Each puts a different spin on driver interface, dispatcher display units, pricing, size and options. These systems typically are stand-alone and usually are not integrated into larger business applications systems. If integration is necessary, special care is required.
Automated dispatch Automated dispatch represents a quantum jump in equipment, dollars and application. In a status-and-message system, the dispatcher sends a limited amount of information to the driver, and the driver sends his status and, perhaps, some variable data. An automated dispatch system generally encompasses much more. This system can take the shape of a complete customer service package providing for service call-taking, creating service orders, transmitting service orders to field technicians and more. Some systems maintain a screen display listing of the day’s customers and let the dispatcher assign service orders to technicians as they become available.
Technicians, on the other hand, may have the ability to update, charge and close out a completed service order. Some systems provide for on-truck inventory maintenance, prior service history queries, cash reconciliation and parts requisitions. This obviously requires much more interaction and access to the main system by field personnel.
These systems are more sophisticated than status-and-message systems. The data volume is greater, the screen in the vehicle may need to be bigger, data baud rates become important, server access limits need to be addressed, and more training is required. The role of the software and hardware vendor becomes that of a systems integrator.
Mobile computing A mobile computing system is most commonly used by organizations with an in-house computer system when it is desirable to give field workers access to the system. Typical applications include IBM 5250 and 3270 emulation, but they can be extended to mini- and main-frame systems.
This type of mobile data system typically is limited to the host applications. The terminology refers to “transactions” or “sessions” instead of sending status reports or messages. Applications include public safety agencies and utility companies. Attention is given to transaction size, number of transactions, baud rates, host interface software and other aspects. The vendor’s role in designing and implementing a system of this size and type and in connecting it with the customer’s existing equipment is critical.
Although mobile data is not limited to the systems described above, these are the most common for fleet applications. Knowing this information, being familiar with hardware and software and having a fair understanding of how the component parts interact allows the interviewer to assess customer needs pragmatically. The interviewer must match customer needs to the best system, and that starts with the software. Sometimes the software is bundled as an integrated part of the hardware, and sometimes the software is stand-alone, making it possible to pick and choose the best hardware for the right software.
Armed with knowledge about the three primary types of mobile data systems, the next step is to define your role in helping your customer install a mobile data system. Most customers rely heavily on a vendor through the entire sales, installation and integration process. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses at the beginning.
Historically, a radio communications shop is used to dealing with hardware, but deals with software usually only to the extent of programming. Installing a sophisticated mobile data system could require extensive engineering, after-sales software support and lots of computer expertise. Most radio shops are not willing to be a systems integrator–and probably should not take the risk. Most shops are comfortable with off-the-shelf products that require a minimum of customation. Radio communications is a hardware solution; mobile data is a software solution.
On the other hand, status-and-message data equipment can and should be sold, installed and supported by two-way radio shops. Most terminal manufacturers provide the hardware connection and interface information necessary for many of the radios on the market, especially from large manufacturers. Most terminal manufacturers also provide a basic software communications package that allows the dispatcher to send messages to the drivers and to receive status updates from the trucks.
Most terminal manufacturers also provide for custom design of the keyboard, button mapping, screen formatting, status indicators, algorithm and sequence. With the custom features from the manufacturer and the basic communications software, status-and-message mobile data units can be sold off the shelf as easily as any radio. More sophisticated computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software is being developed for status-and-message terminals by several vendors.
Status-and-message mobile data is a good way for specialized mobile radio (SMR) system owners and operators to increase revenues without compromising spectrum. Because most radio shops fear the unknown, other shops that embrace mobile data will find less competition and higher profit margins.