Jan 25, 2010 (02:01 PM EST)
Global CIO: UPS Provides Peek Into Future Of Wireless

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When UPS first started using wireless handheld devices, back in the early 1990s, there wasn't roaming or flat-rate pricing. Instead, there were 200 cellular operators who each wanted to bill the package-delivery giant by the minute for data transfer, like they were doing for people's phone calls.

UPS used its buying clout--and the threat of building its own network, using radio spectrum--to cut a nationwide roaming deal. And ever since, UPS has been pushing and prodding the wireless industry. Ten years ago it wanted real-time data transfers from vehicles; five years it got Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular links in the same device, and made GPS central to the handheld device.

Knowing where UPS is heading with its wireless ambition has been a good indicator for where wireless capability is headed.

So imagine that instead of having just one wireless carrier, which you curse with each dropped call, that your phone would constantly search for the best connection. An algorithm on your smartphone would assess signal strengths, and balance that with roaming costs, and decide when to switch from one carrier to another. It could make that switch regardless of what technology that cellular provider used. That's one example of where UPS is headed with wireless.

At the center of UPS's wireless innovation is a handheld device called the DIAD, that clipboard-sized gadget that UPS's brown-clad drivers around the world carry to get and send package information. UPS has completed the specs for the fifth version of the DIAD, and like past iterations, this device pushes the state of the art on a few levels.

Hyper-Roaming Across Networks

The new device, made by Honeywell, will be able to flip as needed from CDMA to GPRS networks and back, and from carrier to carrier, using a 5-band HSPA/EV-DO cellular modem.

One advantage for UPS is fewer machine types to manage. In the U.S., some areas have better CDMA coverage, and some have better GPRS coverage. So UPS had to assign the right device to the right route, based on the radio type. That meant asset tracking for 60,000-some U.S. drivers. Jackie Woods, the UPS VP of IT who led the DIAD V project, describes that as "not an insurmountable task, but not a fun one." Now, every U.S. driver will have the same device.

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The broader impact, however, is around network reliability and cost. The device will switch over to another network if the signal is lost for a certain amount of time, whether due to poor coverage or an outage. Network switching is a backup, so it doesn't immediately cut over to another carrier. The decision considers connectivity costs, using UPS's customized algorithms that balance key factors. Today, it's hard to imagine consumer devices ever having the same kind of hyper-roaming capabilities, given the carrier-centric state of the wireless world. But it's easy to see some consumers wanting it. The value to a business such as UPS is clear. "It's all about having ubiquitous connections," says Greg Bacinski, a key project manager on the DIAD V effort.