Wireless - UPS Versus FedEx: Head-to-Head on Wireless

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2

FedEx also faced a problem with Bluetooth: signal interference from its 3-year-old 802.11b network, which used the same frequency, as well as from the radio noise emitted from sorting belts’ engines and from the lights. Rectifying that interference would cost too much, says Pasley. Because UPS is upgrading its entire scanning system, it could design the devices and access points to accommodate both Bluetooth and 802.11b. In a technique called time-division multiplexing, the scanners alternate between Bluetooth and 802.11b, so their signals don’t conflict.

As they move onto new wireless platforms, both companies are also changing their approaches to network security. Years before there was an 802.11b standard, both UPS and FedEx had adopted predecessor wireless networks. With wireless networks both proprietary and novel, there was little chance of catastrophic disruptions. But today, "if [hackers] jam our wireless network, we’re in real trouble," says FedEx’s Pasley. So "when 802.11b showed up?with security and standards?we immediately deployed it." FedEx has deployed over 5,000 802.11b access points in its facilities since 1999, shortly after the standard was finalized. UPS will have about 9,000 802.11b access points in place by 2009. "We don’t want to interfere with someone else’s network or the reverse," says UPS’s Lacy. Both UPS and FedEx use the maximum security settings provided by 802.11b’s wireless equivalency protocol key encryption?UPS augments it with a proprietary Symbol protocol called KeyGuard?and expect to adopt the Wi-Fi protected access standard soon, followed by the 802.11i security standard when that is finalized.

Seeking New Benefits from Wireless

Outside of the two delivery companies’ major package scanning retooling efforts, FedEx and UPS continue to investigate what business benefits they might gain from other wireless technologies. Two have gained particular attention: RFID tags, which could replace bar code scanners, and GPS, which can precisely locate field units.

But RFID requires very large capital investments?not just in readers but in the tag writers as well?plus standard data models so that different recipients can use tags from different sources. "We have several million customers. How do you get a small customer to play in that world?" asks Lacy. To justify its cost, "you need to get more than a bar code [tracking number]," he says. Still, "It’s a when not an if," says Winn Stephenson, FedEx Services senior vice president of IT for technology services.

Basically, UPS and FedEx will need to develop wireless applications that can handle disconnects. "You can never assure 100 per-cent accessibility, so there will be times when the driver is out of communication. How do you recover from that?" asks FedEx’s Carter. Plus, wireless networks still carry less data than the wired networks that most enterprise applications expect, he notes. Applications must be designed with that narrower bandwidth in mind.

Despite those challenges, Carter sees great payoff from wireless: "There’s the phenomenon of interconnectedness. It allows drivers to talk, computers to interact and businesses to work together. Whether it’s wireless routing or fueling trucks, it’s all happening dynamically." As UPS and FedEx are showing, it is wireless technology that provides the medium through which that dynamic exchange happens.

Although few companies have the scale of UPS and FedEx, they can adopt many of the wireless technologies scaled to their size and use devices and network components that fit their operations. "Often, vendors will build a device to our [request for proposal] spec, and we’ll often see them go to market," notes Pasley. Other wireless adopters will face the same issues that FedEx and UPS faced in deploying the new standards-based wireless technologies, and often discover similar answers. "They led the industry in solving the early problems," says Alan Varghese, a senior director of wireless at Allied Business Intelligence, "and now others are seeing there’s a lot more knowledge and expertise available so they can climb on the bandwagon."

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2
Learn how leading CIOs are reinventing IT. Download CIO's new Think Tank report today!