FedEx picks simple-text messaging in Europe

Unable to acquire the frequencies it needs to build the kind of extensive, private wireless data network it operates in the U.S., FedEx Corp. has started to roll out a digital dispatch and tracking system in Europe based on a popular wireless messaging service.

That system brings mobile package-tracking to parts of FedEx's European operation for the first time. Previously, drivers communicated with dispatchers by phone and logged packages when they reached a facility.

The mobile system is based on simple text messaging technology called Short Message Service (SMS). It's commonly used in Europe by teen-agers who send data messages to one another's cell phones.

It's also not compatible with the proprietary systems FedEx uses in the U.S., so the Memphis-based company is rolling out different hardware in Europe. The company developed a rugged truck-mounted terminal from Husky Computers Ltd. in Coventry, England, running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE operating system.

FedEx's U.K.-based regional IT director Grahame Ritchie, speaking at the company's European hub at Charles de Gaulle airport here, said the SMS system "mimics" the functionality of the proprietary system that FedEx uses in the U.S.

Once a European FedEx driver scans a package's bar code into his handheld computer, he transmits the information via an infrared port to the courier communications (CoCo) terminal in his truck. CoCo then transmits the data through the European cell phone network into the company's long-haul network and then into the FedEx mainframe in Memphis.

Ritchie said the SMS network provides "about the same throughput, 9.6 bit/sec.," as private packet data networks.

Rolling Out CoCo

FedEx started rolling CoCo out in Germany last year and plans to eventually deploy it throughout Europe, except for greater Paris and the U.K. There, the company has been able to use capacity on commercial packet data networks.

European Operation

Highlights of FedEx’s new wireless network in Europe:

Uses mobile phone network Short Messsage Service channels for dispatch and package information network

Uses new vehicle terminals based on Windows CE

Mimics the private data network and terminals FedEx uses in U.S.

Nigel Deighton, a Gartner Group Inc. analyst based in London, called SMS the "most reliable" of the data services available on the European Global System for Mobile (GSM) telephone standard. SMS can get through when a voice call can't because it runs over the network signaling channel, he said. It also stores and forwards messages.

SMS messages dominate GSM data traffic and have enormous popularity, growing from 1 billion per month in December 1999 to more than 15 billion per month by the end of last year, Deighton said.

But Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner, said, "The biggest problem [with SMS] is that the packet size is 160 [characters], and there is no guarantee that the messages are received in the order they are sent." However, since package-tracking and dispatch applications don't require the transmission of large amounts of data, SMS can probably handle such narrowband messages, Dulaney added.

Ritchie said FedEx evaluated Palm Inc.'s operating system and Linux in addition to Windows CE. The company opted for Windows CE "because it is much easier to write applications to," he said.

This story, "FedEx picks simple-text messaging in Europe" was originally published by Computerworld.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon