Adios, CDPD

Adios, CDPD

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Some truckers soon may no longer be Free 2 Go. In July, AT&T Wireless will no longer support cellular digital packet data technology, or CDPD for short.

The technology has been a popular way for truckers and other transportation companies to stay in touch on the road - especially for urban delivery fleets and LTL carriers. For many small operators, said Patrick Wise, vice president of advanced technology at Landstar System, the end of CDPD will come as a surprise.

CDPD is used to transmit data over cellular networks and is cheaper than voice communications. In the mid-1990s it was billed as a less expensive alternative to satellite-based data communications for truckers. Even so, AT&T began phasing this technology out last year because "so few people were on it anymore," he said.

In its place are GSM/GPRS and Edge, new technology introduced by AT&T since 2002.

While it''s inconvenient to do an upgrade, "there are some compelling arguments" to do so, said Wise.

Landstar doesn''t own its fleet, so it''s up to each owner-operator to decide what kind of technology to use to communicate with Landstar, said Wise. Landstar accepts all and has "four or five different ways our owner-operators" can communicate with Landstar. "Wireless is just one important piece," said Wise.

Landstar began using cellular technology in mid-2000 and began moving from CDPD to GSM/GPRS last year because it has better coverage and speed, he said. Almost all of the owner-operators use cellular but not all are transmitting data that way, said Wise.

But for some CDPD wasn''t all it was cracked up to be. Scott Sullivan, vice president of information technology at Pitt-Ohio Express, said the company never finished its touted CDPD initiative. Traffic World reported on the company''s CDPD plan in October 1998.

"There were too many dead zones. Information wasn''t able to get out to drivers. And the cost - wireless is pretty expensive." The initiative was stopped almost as soon as it began, he said.

"Basically we left our mobile communications on the sidelines for the time being. We just started last year" looking at it again, he said. Now it''s using Nextel phones for voice communication and evaluating technology from other vendors.

"It''s a pretty heavy capital outlay and monthly charges," said Sullivan, noting that Pitt-Ohio will make a decision on the technology at the end of 2004.

Ellen Webner, spokesperson for AT&T Wireless, said CDPD was the company''s first foray into wireless data transmission. In late 2002, the company built its GSM/GPRS network, also in use in Europe. Verizon and Sprint each use a different standard.

GSM, or Global Standard for Mobile Communication, is enhanced with General Packet Radio Services. GPRS "makes everything more efficient," enabling a data speed comparable to home dialup, she said.

The next evolution is Edge, which stands for Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution, launched in November. GSM was a separate network from CDPD but Edge is a software overlying the GSM network, said Webner. "It supercharges it and makes it go a whole heck of a lot faster. If someone is using their laptop they don''t have to pay for a hotel modem anymore. The speeds are sufficient enough," she said.

Few of AT&T''s customers still are using CDPD. Most have migrated to GSM, said Webner. CDPD, however, is only one way to transmit data. Brian McLaughlin, vice president of marketing for PeopleNet, a mobile communications provider, said his company does not use CDPD. Instead it uses "a packet-based overlay on an analog system," he said.

"CDPD had huge promise and then died an early death," said McLaughlin. While CDPD is cheaper than technology that PeopleNet uses, it had coverage problems, and because of that was not widely adopted by the transportation industry, he said.

"The transportation industry in general is a group of permanent roamers. And they really need that coverage throughout," he said.

McLaughlin cautioned both carriers and shippers looking for a way to transmit shipment data to carefully check out the telecommunications backbone of the technology before buying. The system should have redundancy in case one system - CDPD, say - goes under and it should be provided by a stable and mature company, he said.