Small Businesses Leverage Wireless Tracking

Monday Feb 9th 2004 by Gerry Blackwell
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New wireless technologies can not only provide you with a better way to keep employees connected to your business, wireless systems can also protect your business by keeping track of assets in the field — learn how.

How much would it be worth to you to know exactly where all your company's vehicles or mobile workers were at any given moment?

How much to know that your workers are actually where they're supposed to be, working? How much to know they're not driving your vehicles around at high speed, endangering your investment and bringing your company into disrepute?

For owners of Clintar Groundskeeping franchises in Ontario, Canada, the answer is about 75 cents a day per vehicle.

That's what Clintar is paying for a high-tech vehicle tracking system from AirIQ that uses global positioning system (GPS) and cellular communications to keep tabs on vehicles and report via the Internet on their location and speed. The GPS positioning is accurate to within a few yards.

Small Business, Big Concerns
Lots of big trucking, vehicle rental and heavy equipment leasing companies have been using wireless vehicle tracking services for a few years, but prices have been coming down, and today even fairly small firms such as Clintar can afford to use them too.

Clintar, which does gardening, landscaping, lawn cutting and snow plowing, has franchise operations in the Toronto area, in a handful of other cities in Ontario and in the eastern province of New Brunswick. Together they employ about 125 year-round employees, 400 in the summer. And they have about 140 vehicles.

"We had some real concerns with our unsupervised labour and knowing exactly where they and the vehicles were," explains Clintar president Robert Wilton.

It wasn't just wanting to know that the trucks were at the customer's site when they were supposed to be — though that was definitely an issue. Vehicles had also been stolen from Clintar yards and Wilton suspected employees, "or friends of friends [of employees]."

So he went looking for some way to prevent further thefts and also keep track of vehicles during the day. "It might be coincidence," Wilton says, "but we haven't had a vehicle stolen since we started with AirIQ."

He doesn't think it is coincidence, though. The company made no secret of the fact that it was using high-tech tracking technology to watch its vehicles. If one was stolen, Clintar would know exactly where it ended up.

Wilton believes thieves are leaving his vehicles alone for that reason. And preventing just one theft pays for a lot of AirIQ service.

Knowing the vehicles are being tracked has also had an impact on workers. They know the company can check up on where they are, or were at any given time. So they're not as tempted now to rush through a job and slip off to the park or the shopping mall.

"They can't wander very far without us knowing about it," is how Wilton puts it.

Not that Clintar is playing Big Brother and constantly checking up on employees, but if a question arises about whether a crew was where it said it was, and was supposed to be, the company can settle it pretty definitively.

This comes in especially handy in the winter when Clintar plows customers' parking lots, usually outside normal office hours. It sometimes happens that a truck will plow a lot at one in the morning, but by nine, it's snowed in again.

If the client accuses Clintar of failing to honor its contract, the company can use historical data from the AirIQ service to show that a truck was at the site and at what time.

"I don't know how you measure the benefit of that," Wilton says. "It puts us a league above our competitors. It is definitely a sales tool for us."

Speeding is another area of concern with unsupervised workers in company vehicles. AirIQ can calculate speed very accurately by taking positioning readings at intervals and measuring the distance traveled in the interval.

Clintar configures the service to send alarms if a vehicle is detected traveling faster than about 70 mph, which is 10 mph over the maximum highway speed in Ontario.

"We look at each situation," Wilton says. "If they're going 73 mph on [a six-lane highway] at 4 p.m., we're not going to say anything, but if they're doing 73 mph down [a major city street], we're going to do something about it for sure. It's a judgment call."

Working Smarter, Not Harder
Clintar chose AirIQ partly because it was a known quantity — the company had been providing two-way radio services for many years before it began offering vehicle tracking — and partly because none of the other vendors he investigated could offer as good a deal.

AirIQ is one of several vendors offering similar services, either regionally, or as in AirIQ's case, continent wide. They all work much the same way.

A small device is mounted in the vehicle out of sight. It incorporates a GPS receiver and either satellite or cellular transceiver and antennas. It also has computer processing capabilities.

The onboard device receives GPS data and calculates position, speed and bearing (direction traveled). Depending on what the customer needs — or is willing to pay for — it sends all or some of this data over a cellular or satellite wireless network to the vehicle tracking service provider's network operations center (NOC).

AirIQ, which like most vendors operates as an application service provider (ASP), uses a local cellular provider's narrowband control channel to transmit the relatively small amount of data the devices send back to its NOC.

At the NOC, AirIQ receives data from thousands of vehicles — about 40,000 actually. It formats the data and posts it to a password-protected Web site for the customer.

Customers like Clintar can use a standard browser to access the information any time they want. It was easy to learn to use the system, Wilton says. No real training was required. "If I can do it," he says, "anybody can."

Clintar franchise owners also install the devices in their vehicles themselves. Use of the service is not required by the terms of their franchise agreements, but about 100 of the 140 Clintar vehicles have the devices installed.

Customers can connect the AirIQ device to a vehicle's electronics to detect status — ignition on or off, for example. Or they can connect it to special electronic sensors installed in the vehicle — a temperature gage to monitor the temperature in a refrigerator tractor trailer, for example. Clintar isn't using this capability.

The more sophisticated type of device installation could be used to send an alarm if a vehicle's air bag was deployed, a pretty good indication it was in an accident. If a vehicle was reported stolen, a signal could be sent from the service provider's NOC to the vehicle, disabling its ignition system so the thief couldn't start the engine again.

AirIQ generally prefers clients to buy the devices. Depending on the model and the quantity purchased, they can cost anywhere from about $380 to $750. Service fees vary from about $7.50 to $23 per month depending on the amount of data sent and the frequency.

Clintar was a rare small business "early adopter." Because it wasn't sure how worthwhile the service would be or whether it would be superseded by something else, it didn't want to invest capital in the devices. So AirIQ agreed to a deal under which Clintar pays a bundled fee for lease of the hardware and the service.

It works out to about 75 cents — or $1 Canadian — per vehicle per day. "Our franchise owners feel $1 a day is a fair insurance premium to know where their trucks are and know they're not tearing around city at great speed," Wilton says.

And also to know they're not going to disappear in the night.

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