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Of Diesel and Dial-Up

Why truckers make the best beta-testers.
March 22, 2002

“Heltzel!” my editor yelled into the phone, “where’s my story?”

I checked my watch. My editor was two time zones and half a pot of coffee ahead of me. I croaked out a hello then put on my best business voice, made difficult by the hum of a diesel engine penetrating the aluminum outer shell of my ‘69 Airstream camper.

“You’ll have it this morning, chief, no problem,” I said confidently, and with good reason. The truck stop where I’d spent the night-for free-had a reliable Internet connection inside the restaurant. For my money, highway travel centers, née truck stops, are the best places on the road to surf the Web. Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way. While munching a corn dog (a common truck-stop freebee with a $50 diesel fill-up), I shared outlets and power strips with my flannel-clad brethren who were somehow trucking online.

It makes sense that truckers are the most well-connected travelers on the road. They need to stay in touch with the trucking company and with family. Also, they increasingly use Web-based services that help them find loads to drive home and avoid deadheading, or driving an empty trailer-every trucker’s worst nightmare since those miles produce no revenue. In an attempt to remedy this situation, companies such as The Internet TruckstopInsight Technology and On Time Media have set up Web-based load matching services. A trucker can log on to these sites, enter the city where he will be dropping off a load and the city to which he needs to return. The system will then tell him of any loads that need to be hauled between those cities. It gets sophisticated. For example, if a load is being dropped in Orlando and the trucker needs to go to New York, the system may find an Orlando-Memphis load, followed by a Memphis-Cleveland load and then a Cleveland-New York load.

Some IT investors follow the online movements of truckers closely because they are not traditionally thought of as early adopters of technology. Like travelers who pull over to eat where the truckers do, investors feel a sense of comfort once a technology becomes viable at truck stops. According to Jack Vonder Heide, president of Oakbrook Terrace, IL-based Technology Briefing Centers, 18-wheeler operators have led the way in road testing technologies that have filtered down to consumers. He notes a laundry list of technologies used today, including cell phones, ruggedized notebooks, touch screens, discount long-distance services, self-serve gas pumps, “and, lest we forget the past, CB radios.”

“We find truckers to be very reliable predictors of an emerging technology’s likelihood of success,” says Vonder Heide. “Truckers don’t have large amounts of expendable income. They’re not conspicuous consumers. So when we see truckers adopt a technology, that gives us a higher level of comfort that we can recommend that technology to our clients as an investment.”

So what’s down the road, so to speak, after dial-up access in roadside restaurants? In the next 12 to 18 months, expect to see wireless public Internet access points begin to pop up at truck stops around the country. Using the same technology found in wireless home and office networks, 802.11b LANs provide Internet access within 200 to 300 feet of the truck stop. Providers are test marketing wireless access plans priced around 15 cents a minute (or $7 a day), as well as nationwide service plans for frequent travelers willing to subscribe for a monthly fee.

“I think wireless service will be widespread in our industry,” says Bill Bartkus, vice president of IT at TravelCenters of America. “Wireless networks put Internet access at every seat, not just the ones with a phone jack. We’ll add wireless access points to the exterior of the buildings, so drivers won’t have to go inside. People who want to sit in the lot in their car or RV won’t have to lug a laptop into the building.”

For truckers, that means saving time off the road-and maybe even having the Internet become as integral to their job as the CB radio.

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