FedEx and land mobile
Private wireless spectrum plays a crucial role in the operations infrastructure of one of the world’s largest courier and business delivery services.
Santa Claus supposedly just completed a phantasmagorical worldwide delivery of packages in one night. Another entity performs an equally Herculean task: worldwide distribution of 3.1 million packages, weighing more than 7 million pounds-every night. This delivery artery doesn’t just carry gifts, it carries the lifeblood of worldwide commerce.
How does FedEx do it? It takes many different ingredients, all linked by a vast communications infrastructure that includes land mobile radio.
In 1971, Memphis, TN-based Federal Express was incorporated. (The company was officially rebranded as “FedEx” in 1994.) The FedEx mission of transporting time-sensitive goods door to door reliably-and overnight-was a radical idea based on a simple “hub-and-spoke” model. The company would fly packages to a central location, sort them, load them back onto planes and fly them to their destination-all in the middle of the night.
The FedEx idea attracted entrepreneurial employees and investors who were willing to dream big. The company bought a squadron of Dassault Falcon jets, many of whch had been collecting dust in the New Mexico desert. At the time, it was the most heavily financed startup in U.S. transportation history.
On April 17, 1973, working out of World War II-vintage Air National Guard hangers in Memphis, FedEx started operations serving 25 cities. The company delivered 186 packages that first night, using 389 employees. It’s amazing when you think about it-about two employees per package.
To measure the distance covered since then, consider a few stagggering numbers. Generating $14 billion in annual revenues, FedEx now delivers about 3.1 million packages daily to 210 countries. It takes some 148,000 employees shipping via 634 aircraft and more than 42,500 vehicles worldwide.
The development of the communications infrastructure to support this phenomenal growth has been a process of invention for FedEx. Nathan Lemmon, chief engineer for Wireless Systems Development in Memphis, pointed out that there was no precedent.
“When FedEx invented this industry in 1973, no one (not even the inventor) understood the volume, or the real-time nature of the communications that would be required to make it work,” Lemmon said. “When your entire business cycle is only 24 hours, you can’t spend a lot of that time communicating. Within five to six years of initial launch of service, our business growth was being throttled by the inability to dispatch our couriers in a timely manner. The business was out there, but we couldn’t get the information to our workforce. In the late ’70s, early ’80s, there were no wide-area voice systems, much less data-capable networks. So we had to invent wide-area voice and data capability as well.” Lemmon said that the availability of private wireless spectrum to facilitate such an operation is critical.
“It’s ironic that 20 years later … there are still no commercial wireless providers offering wide-area, integrated, packet data and dispatch voice services,” Lemmon said. “While some providers are rumored to be close, and some providers are promising, you can’t run a time-critical business on rumor or promises.
“Even when a public provider can offer the basic feature set that FedEx requires to maintain current mobile workforce productivity levels, it will take several years, if ever, for this provider to match our current wide-area coverage and low operating cost.”
In 1980, radio contact with fleet vehicles was augmented with the digital transmission of data to in-vehicle terminals. The Digitally Assisted Dispatch System (DADS) began guiding couriers to their next pickup.
Keith McGArr, vice president, network computing, said that since the company added data to its mobile radio installations in the early 1980s, it now has one of the world’s largest private mobile data networks. Operating on an IEEE 802.11 wireless messaging standard at 800MHz, the wireless network connects to some 83,000 couriers online.
The digital specifications for the mobile data/radio units were developed by FedEx; M/A-COM, Lowell, MA, designed the mobiles and base stations to spec. “The architecture evolved as we worked with M/A-COM on tweaking and optimizing the software and hardware,” Lemmon said. M/A-COM is still FedEx’s only supplier of the technology.
The units not only support accurate dispatching but also the multiple changes and adjustments that such a magnitude of deliveries entails. In the United States alone, daily routes driven cover more than 2.7 million miles.
In addition to courier communications, there are other focused uses for land mobile radio. Take, for instance, the authorized shipcenters, of which there are more than 7,600. The largest, the superhub at Memphis headquarters, employs 12,200 people working in 2.4 million square feet of floor space. Coordination of package handling is critical, with a box sort capacity of 160,000 pieces per hour and a document sort capacity of 325,000 pieces per hour. Radio support for this process is essential, with about 3,000 employees on the wireless network. Aircraft mechanics and other support employees in the 1,400 world service centers also require wireless communications support for their tasks.
Network-wide, FedEx uses about 40,000 mobile data/voice units and about 2,500 hand-held data terminals. About 760 base stations support the network on leased tower space. FedEx owns all the fixed equipment and manages and operates the network of about 600 different sites.
“Our coverage is somewhat less than analog cellular, but more than Ardis or BellSouth Wireless Data. It’s not all digital yet. We’ve been rolling out our second-generation digital technology for about 18 months, and we’re at about 10,000 units, or approximately 25% of the fleet.” Lemmon said in December.
The RF systems support for this vast network requires the services of about 300 field service techs who do the end-to-end service under the control of the Memphis-based RF Network Control Center, composed of around 10 technicians. Another 10 Memphis-based technicians do the depot-level repairs and support the RF and mobile data terminal devices, Lemmon said.
“Base station maintenance is contracted to local radio shops and dispatched from Memphis, based on input from our field techs and Network Management System,” he said.
Although traditional radio plays an integral part in FedEx’s overall communications. it is but one strand of a communications network.
FedEx has deployed 2.4GHz (ISM) wireless LANs at its hubs for wireless scanning and packet data applications, in addition to the private trunked radio systems. A new digital mobile has the option for an internal GPS receiver. Lemmon said that the cost justification for roll-out is now being reviewed. “As our real-time, on-route package-tracking application gives us the last known location of our courier, we’ve had the luxury of waiting for the cost of GPS receivers to become a non-issue,” he said.
FedEx has always been on the cutting edge of technology, but in the past the growth of various communications systems (mobile radio, circuit-switch telephone, mainframe computers, satellite systems) occured separately as distinct networks.
“But, what has evolved over the past three years is the convergence of wireless, voice, video data, satellite and wide-area networks all into a common digital infrastructure,” McGarr said. “It looks like a common virtual network, with a coming together of all of the different content built on the Internet protocol (IP) standards.”
The whole point of FedEx’s communications network is that it appears seamless and transparent to the user, whether that person is a sales or customer service rep, a courier or a network engineer. The same holds true for the customer, whether he makes his connection by a physical drop at a shipcenter, or by using telephone, email, radio or any other medium to request a pickup or to query the status of a package or document. The content is all translated into the same system and then sorted and dispersed again as needed. Call volume averages more than 500,000 transactions per day, plus 60 million electronic transmissions.
There is also an entirely different, but equally important, aspect to communications for FedEx. “It’s fundamental to understand that, from our early days, we realized that the movement of information was just as important as the package,” McGarr said. “The ability to have real-time control over where the package is and when it will be delivered is critical to the customer.”
FedEx realizes that, for commerical customers, delivery is one link in a complex “supply chain” that extends from a company’s suppliers to its customers. Managed strategically, the supply chain can yield significant advantages that include lower distribution and inventory costs, improved profitability, enhanced customer service and satisfaction, and shorter transit times to market. These advantages can translate into more time for product innovation, customization and quality. n
Worldwide: Memphis, TN Asia: Hong Kong Canada: Toronto Europe: Brussels, Belgium Latin America: Miami
Revenues: $14 billion, fiscal year 1999 Employees: More than 145,000 worldwide Countries served: 210 Mobile radios used: 40,000 Base stations: 760 Aircraft fleet: 634 worldwide Vehicle fleet: More than 42,500 worldwide Average package volume: More than 3.2 million daily worldwide Average call volume: More than 500,000 calls daily Distance driven per day: More than 2.7 million miles (just in the United States) Internet: More than four million monthly hits; more than two million packages tracked per month
In getting the package from “here” to “there,” FedEx uses a number of procedures derived from $1.4 billion it budgets for technology. Here are some of the key ones: * The information network that tracks the movement of every shipment in the system is called Customer Oriented Service and Management Operating System (COSMOS). In a typical month, customers tap into COSMOS via the Internet nearly two million times for an update on shipment status. * The “Supertracker” is what FedEx calls the process through which a hand-held scanner captures information on each FedEx package with a quick scan of the package’s unique bar code. Each package receives as many as 10 scans, from pickup to delivery, pinpointing the real-time status of the package en route. New technology will address the problem of incorrectly addressed packages by letting couriers verify addresses at the time of pickup. * “Automated Sorting Tracing Routing Aid” (ASTRA) is the official name for the unique bar code on every FedEx shipment, generated when customers use the FedEx electronic shipping system of whenever packages enter the system. Encoded on the label are data such as destination, service requested and commitment time. In a FedEx hub, the ASTRA label aids in correct sorting and routing.