FedEx expands net reach to mobile data

FedEx Corp. has signed a five-year deal to use AT&T Wireless Services Inc.’s next-generation mobile data network to support new, high-bandwidth applications to be used by its 40,000 couriers. Analysts said the move demonstrates that commercial mobile data services are becoming a reality for enterprise users.

FedEx also disclosed that it has selected Microsoft Corp.’s Pocket PC operating system as the technology for its next-generation mobile scanner and package-tracking device, which will be called PowerPad.

Ken Pasley, FedEx’s director of wireless systems development, said the AT&T Wireless General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) network “gives us significantly more bandwidth” than the company’s private network and will allow FedEx to expand the types of applications used on tracking devices. The throughput of the GPRS network is about 20Kbps to 40Kbps, compared with the 19.2Kbps that FedEx currently gets on its nationwide private network. The new network will allow couriers to send fat files such as digital signatures and could also support voice recognition technology, Pasley said.

Pasley, who spoke with Computerworld last week at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association’s trade show here, said the airtime price that Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx negotiated with Redmond, Wash.-based AT&T Wireless will be about the same as the cost of maintaining the aging private network. For competitive reasons, Pasley declined to provide details of the pricing he negotiated with AT&T.

FedEx doesn’t pay airtime charges for its 20-year-old private wireless network, Pasley said, but the company has to maintain towers and a network of 750 radio repeaters devices that send a signal from one tower to another as well as the wire-line networks that hook the wireless network into its systems.

FedEx intends to use the AT&T Wireless network and capacity to initially supplement its private network in large metropolitan areas. The resources of the private network will be redeployed to serve smaller areas, Pasley said.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said that makes sense, because “cellular carriers like AT&T will equip high-population or well-traveled areas with [GPRS and Global System for Mobile Communications networks].” But carriers won’t put towers in rural areas because there’s “no money to be made” in those locations, he said.

The AT&T network will be used to support the PowerPad tracker device, which FedEx is developing based on the Microsoft Power PC operating system, Pasley said. The PowerPad will use Bluetooth short-range wireless communications to feed data from the handheld computer to phones that couriers will wear on their belts. The phones will connect to the AT&T Wireless network.

Pasley gave few details about PowerPad, saying it’s still under development. But, he said, FedEx wants it equipped with voice recognition technology. Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., and Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill., are developing prototypes of the PowerPad hardware, he said.