Trucking’s 3G problem: How to handle changing wireless networks

February 21, 2019

For most people with a smartphone, whether you’re accessing the Internet with a 3G or 4G wireless connection is a matter of how fast you’re able to download apps, watch videos or send photos on your phone. When it comes to businesses like trucking companies that increasingly rely on online services in day-to-day operations, however, new generations of mobile technology can present a high risk of big sunk costs.

The technical differences between 2G, 3G and 4G LTE connections get into the weeds quickly, but the overarching question is what kind of tech infrastructure a company should rely on. Just as fleet operators plan routes around physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, investing in tech infrastructure that provide an adaptable base for new data analysis capabilities or other next-generation services is an increasingly important competitive question.

It’s an issue that’s come to a head in the last two years, as major wireless providers like Verizon and AT&T announced that they are ending new 3G offerings, and that they plan to stop serving 3G customers in 2019 and 2021, respectively. That’s a problem for companies that have purchased communications equipment like fleet tracking devices built to work on 3G networks.

“There are some technology changes that absolutely require a rip-out-and-replace, to be blunt, and this is one of those changes,” John Binder, director of wireless operations for Trimble’s Transportation Mobility division, recently told Transport Topics.

While it’s no secret that many evolving technologies will eventually bite the bullet (dial-up modems and pagers, anyone?) not all tech services are created equal. With hardware like telematics systems or other components that have 3G chips, it’s not always possible to simply update the equipment and a new purchase will likely be in order. Software, though, is much more adaptable.

At Vector, our mobile document scanning software is compatible with smartphones of any age. When a user upgrades their device, the service might get faster and allow for new volumes of data to be transmitted, but the ability to scan and send documents back to home office stays the same.

Much like consumer car companies are moving toward electronic controls systems that can be updated remotely, the trucking industry is in a moment of flux where more adaptable systems must be built for vehicles designed to last a long lifespan. Especially because the shift from 3G to 4G isn’t the only major change on the horizon.

The rise of 5G

While trucking companies evaluate what equipment might be impacted by the looming sunset of 3G, there’s another important variable to keep in mind: a new generation of 5G wireless.

China is already out in front on rolling out 5G mobile Internet, but U.S. cities are also now brokering big deals for 5G infrastructure that promises to transmit and process data 100 times as fast as 4G networks.

In addition to lightning-quick communication for document transmission, load dispatching, freight updates and delivery confirmation, the build-out of 5G promises to be a game changer for so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT) and smart city technology. In transportation, the field of of connected cars and trucks is based on the ability to use sensors in vehicles or on roadways to enable real-time route adjustments, increase accident prevention and yes, expedite development of autonomous vehicles.

For trucking and other industries that have lagged in adopting new online technologies, wise investment in 5G-compatible systems could be a significant driver of future growth. Systems that are now standard for fleets, like Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs), could provide massive amounts of data on drivers, route efficiency and other variables—if it becomes cheaper and easier to transmit those vast amounts of data with faster networks.

“5G technology has the potential to provide increased visibility and control over transportation systems,” AT&T advises customers. The wireless provider notes that adding citywide 5G networks will “make it easier for private fleet owners to get consistent telemetry data from their field service vehicles and delivery trucks. This data, delivered in real time, will help them track everything from vehicle location and speed to idle time and fuel consumption.”

Like any big infrastructure project, the path to actually making 5G a reality isn’t easy, or cheap. Much like emerging blockchain technology, there are no set standards yet for 5G technology, and going from concept to reality is a process only starting to play out at scale in the U.S.

While 5G rollout is expected to accelerate in 2019 and 2020, businesses depending on mobile networks are in limbo. As a result, fright operators would be wise to invest in systems that can survive the end of 3G and function reliably on 4G networks, but which also provide flexibility to adapt to future 5G networks.

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