Keeping track of company assets can be a challenge for any business. But when those assets routinely travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres at a time — as courier, rental or shipping vehicles do — that challenge can become monumental. To overcome it, fleet managers use some form of

vehicle tracking system to allocate, manage and help secure those assets.

Fleet management systems typically use some form of wireless technology to mediate communications between a vehicle and its home base, and the type of wireless technology any given system uses can have a significant operational and economic impact.

While all modern fleet tracking systems use the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) to provide location information, the manner in which that information is transmitted from a vehicle to a central site can vary. Satellite, analogue cellular and general packet radio services (GPRS) networks each have their own advantages and disadvantages.

“”The core of what we do revolves around location-based services and how to extrapolate that into meaningful information,”” says Miguel Gonsalves, vice-president of marketing of AirIQ. The Pickering, Ont.-based company specializes in real-time wireless information messaging and management for vehicles and their drivers.

Gonsalves says for a continent-wide fleet management system like AirIQ, the key determinants of which wireless system to use are driven by client need, rather than technology advancements. He lists the three major factors: the broadest possible coverage, cost and bandwidth.

“”In the wireless world, coverage still wins from the terrestrial viewpoint,”” Gonsalves said, adding in urban areas, buildings and other structures can obstruct line-of-sight to a satellite.

Price is a factor, as is the “”ability to have short, bursty types of information communicated.”” He added this bursty type of communication, and the ability to carry long transmissions, is a more important factor than the actual number of bits per second.

Based on those three factors, AirIQ’s system uses traditional “”backbone”” Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS) cellular networks, employing both the voice and what Gonsalves describes as the “”underused”” control channels.

The advantages are coverage and cost, Gonsalves says. Since some of the more recent packet-based digital networks are only available in urban areas, using the AMPS digital control channel is ideal for transmitting short bursts of data regardless of location.

Dan Sokic agrees that the factors cited by Gonsalves are key considerations for anyone deploying a fleet management system. As president of the Mississauga, Ont. arm of cross-border commercial shipping company Land Air Express, Sokic has had first-hand experience implementing and using different types of wireless systems his company has chosen over the years, including a range of industry-standard analogue cellular and products from a variety of manufacturers.

Sokic’s company recently switched from a satellite-based tracking system to a GPRS product by Vancouver’s WebTech Wireless, which he says has driven costs down while providing more detailed and easily accessible real-time tracking information.

WebTech’s decision to base its products on the GPRS standard was made after the company noted that more than 70 per cent of the world’s cellular phones were GSM-based and Rogers Wireless and AT&T announced GSM network rollouts in Canada and the U.S., says chief operating officer Gordon Becker.

“”The major advantage is that it’s always-on technology,”” Becker says. “”It’s like having an ADSL line in your vehicle.””

That translates into low-cost, high-throughput transfers of data, which give WebTech’s clients the ability to monitor live, detailed information about their vehicles features they use without hesitation, if the company’s top rank for volume data use on the Rogers network is any indication.

Becker notes that the GSM network is still growing in parts of the U.S. but its availability throughout North America helps make his company’s services “”seamless”” to the user.

Sokic says there are some minor problems with GSM network coverage “”in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio but otherwise it’s great,”” and expects those gaps in coverage are what has kept AirIQ from moving to a GSM system so far, but Gonsalves says he foresees his company making the shift soon, once the packet-layer service matches the coverage the underlying AMPS network currently provides.

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