State-of-the-art radio facilitates UPS distribution
UPS gets a jump-start on new FCC directives.
According to the Industrial Telecommunications Association (ITA), the Atlanta-based United Parcel Service (UPS), through its UPS World Technology division in Mahwah, NJ, was one of the first large companies to take advantage of the FCC’s “refarming”1 efforts. This allowed UPS to get a jump-start in pushing its radio communications to new levels of efficiency.
The company’s current state-of-the-art radio communications system wasn’t developed overnight. The first FCC proposals on refarming were offered in the early 1990s. At that time, UPS already had a mature radio system in place, but, according to telecommunications manager Guy Hamblen of UPS Information Serv-ices, it was time to embrace even more modern radio technology.
“We followed the FCC announcements from the start. It was fairly clear that the agency intended to implement role changes in the use of the MRS [mobile radio service] spectrum, to introduce the migration to very efficient radios and to accommodate the needs of the existing user base to consolidate services-as well as improving the administration of the licensing system,” Hamblen said.
“For UPS, the opportunities were very clear,” Hamblen said. “We saw the chance to move from ‘unprotected’ to ‘protected’ frequencies, to simplify some of our internal business processes through centralized ordering and maintenance functioning, to reduce internal operating costs through a simplified radio infrastructure-which would mean more simplex operations and less repeater usage-and to open up trunking on frequencies at 800MHz-900MHz, which offered a distinct advantage to our larger facilities.”
But all did not go smoothly for UPS in its drive to claim these opportunities. There were challenges to the new rulings, questions that had to be resolved by the user base. UPS was stalled in setting up its strategic plans because of four years of various FCC delays. “We had positioned ourself in 1996 to reform our entire base of about 6,000 users, but further delays took place, so it was not until mid-1997 that the FCC released its final order,” Hamblen said.
UPS requested ITA, which was the designated FCC coordinator, to finalize its plan and to be ready to process license applications as soon as it was allowed.
“Our goals were to acquire primary-channel frequency, greater output power, greater antenna height; to standardize as many of our frequencies nationwide as possible; as well as to standardize our equipment and develop frequency plans for each location to centralize maintenance, purchasing and administrative control in order to ensure FCC compliance requirements,” Hamblen said.
Telecommunications manager Jim Pfannenstiel said that once UPS got the “green light” from the FCC, it surveyed its 1,700 operating facilities (hubs and centers) to verify whether they all did use radio.
More than 300 did use wireless, with varying degrees of radio sophistication. Some of the smaller facilities only required simplex channels. The largest installations, accounting for about 10% of the facilities, used repeaters to support radio communications.
“We understood that as a result of this refarming, all of these frequencies would be designated as high-power frequencies, primary status,” said Pfannenstiel. “So we reacted by applying for primary status of 12.5kHz [channels] for over 250 of our locations as well as for antennas up to 50 feet.”
Pfannenstiel reported that the ITA was helpful with the refarming. ITA coached and counseled UPS not to attempt to refarm in some rural areas where it was not really needed. It supported the company in its main endeavors and conducted the appropriate tests to make sure that if UPS was granted its requests, there would not be interference with other users.
As a result of this refarming, UPS now has more 6,200 hand-held radios, and more than 500 mobile radios that are used to coordinate the location and positioning of the shipping trailers around the distribution grounds and air hubs. There are more than 160 control stations, about 80 of which serve as repeaters. In addition to the five operating trunking sites, UPS has plans for at least two more stations.
It was not until mid-1998 that the actual licensing began to take place. The process is now almost complete for the 250 locations requested for 12.5kHz channels, plus the transition to taller, 50-foot antennas.
So what types of job applications does this radio system support?
A few brief facts are in order: More than 326,000 UPS employees worldwide (291,500 in the United States; 35,000 international) transport more than three billion parcels and documents annually (daily volume reaches 12.4 million units). More than 500 aircraft, 157,000 vehicles and 1,700 facilities are part of the organized system that provide service in more than 200 countries and territories. UPS, with 1998 revenues pegged at $24.8 billion, is the world’s largest package distribution company.
Keeping these statistics in mind, it is obviously a huge task simply to orchestrate the movements of the familiar brown tractor-trailer rigs as they load and off-load at the land and air hubs. But an even bigger task is expediting the processing of millions of packages per day.
“Generally, the radio system is utilized for time-critical package operations; in most instances, broadcast by request,” said Pfannenstiel.
Person-to-person communication is infrequent, Pfannenstiel said. If there were a snafu, typically, you would expect communications to be limited to the employee spotting it and the person calling it, rather than broadcasting the problem to everybody. In this case, the opposite is true.
“Suppose somebody downstream is not getting packages. He knows something is wrong but can’t see the source. So he broadcasts to everybody in the facility, and everybody looks around to try to pinpoint the problem. Everybody is tuned to the same channel,” Pfannenstiel explained.
This philosophy begins to answer the question: Why doesn’t UPS use a commercial system?
“We’re often asked why we don’t use cellphones,” Pfannenstiel said. “First, a cellphone doesn’t have a broadcast capability. Second, it takes a long time to dial up a number and wait for someone to answer, as opposed to a push-to-talk radio. In short, especially doing a major sort, we need rapid and reliable communications.”
UPS cannot rely on commercial systems to address the demands of this operational necessity, he added.
After receiving the FCC licenses, UPS proceeded with standardizing equipment in all facilities and developing a central control. Frequency plans were put in place. A specialized database helped centralize purchasing.
“Our goal was to standardize what field people can order,” said Pfannenstiel. “By requiring them to purchase through a central office, we prevent deviations.”
UPS has relied on Radio Communication Systems, Louisville, KY, to build the equipment for all the facilities and to make sure that the frequency plans are properly programmed to meet FCC compliance codes. All of the hand-held equipment is sent to Radio Communication Systems for service, but fixed equipment is repaired by local outfits. “Our local affiliates are close by and can respond quickly,” Pfannenstiel said.
Voice communications, incidently, is no longer used in the delivery trucks. Data communications, which can provide automatic tracking of packages, is the more efficient technology. However, voice still has its place; email would hardly be the appropriate way to communicate in the hubbub of a distribution center, where people are more busy doing other things than to sit down and look at a screen.
Despite the long and arduous journey through the “refarmlands,” UPS has benefitted from getting a jump-start on the new FCC directives.
“First and foremost, we’ve received primary frequency protection from any potential interference,” Pfannenstiel said. “This is critical, for many of our packages have priority status and cannot be delayed. Secondly, distribution centers are big, noisy work areas. The voice/radio broadcast allows all of our workers to communicate instantly and cooperate to get the job done as efficiently as possible.”
In 1907, America needed private messenger and delivery services. Few private homes had telephones, so personal messages had to be carried by hand. Luggage and packages also had to be delivered privately. The U.S. Postal Service would not begin the parcel post system for another six years.
To help meet this need, an enterprising 19-year-old, James “Jim” E. Casey, borrowed $100 from a friend and established the American Messenger Company in Seattle. With a handful of other teenagers, including his brother, George, Jim ran his service from a humble office. Despite stiff competition, the company did well, largely because of Jim Casey’s strict policies: customer courtesy, reliability, round-the-clock service and low rates. These principles, which guide UPS even today, are summarized by Jim’s slogan, “Best Service and Lowest Rates.”
UPS’ state-of-the-art radio technology is but the latest expression of this slogan.
Founded: Seattle, Aug. 29, 1907
World headquarters: Atlanta
Daily delivery volume: 3.14 billion packages and documents
Daily air delivery volume: 1.8 million packages and documents
Service area: More than 200 countries and territories (includes every U.S. address)
Employees: 326,800 worldwide
(291,500 U.S.; 35,300 globally)
Customers: 1.61 million (shippers that receive automatic daily pickup service)
Operating facilities (hubs and centers): 1,713
Delivery fleet: 157,000 vehicles (package cars, vans, tractor-trailers)
Jet aircraft fleet: 224 total
Chartered aircraft: 302
Daily flight segments: 995 domestic; 559 international
Global telecommunications network: 100 countries and 900,000 users served
(Information based on worldwide facts presented at www.ups.com)