Purolator tracks movement with data packets

When Purolator Courier Ltd. starting hearing complaints from customers that packages were too hard to trace, the company knew it was time to try something new.

The solution came in the form of general packet radio service (GPRS) technology. GPRS is an enhancement to the global system for mobile communications (GSM) that supports data packets. This more advanced version enables continuous flows of IP data packets over the system for applications including Web browsing and file transfer.

Access to package information has become one of the biggest concerns for both Purolator and its customers in recent years, according to Tony Slade, managing director of the mobile data project at Purolator in Mississauga, Ont.

Slade said packages could only be traced after couriers scanned package bar codes into their wireless handheld devices. Couriers would then download the scanned information to the mainframe at mid-day and again at the end of the day. Customers would only be able to track their packages in these two time frames.

“But the industry is changing, and in the industry now you have to be much more proactive than that,” Slade said. “The customer wants to know where their package is all the time, not just at certain times when we decide.”

Edward Hill, an online shipping administrator for Edmonton-based Enviro-Test Laboratories, which specializes in environmental consulting, said that after dealing with Purolator for two years, Enviro-Test was looking for a better tracking solution from the company.

“Basically once the package left the door, I had no idea where it was until someone received it. And if something got lost, I wouldn’t know right away,” Hill said.

Slade added that in order to correct this customer service problem, Purolator had to find a way to equip the handheld scanners that the couriers carried with real-time data communication capabilities.

He added that after going into the marketplace with a request for proposal, the company decided on GPRS technology from Rogers AT&T.

Purolator choose Rogers AT&T “predominately because of their coverage and time. They were the first to the market with a national network, national data network and a GPRS network…their claim is 93 per cent coverage of the [Canadian] population with this network,” Slade said.

Warren Chaisatien, a senior telecom analyst at IDC Canada in Toronto, said the deal between Purolator and Rogers AT&T Wireless is meant to be a “showcase” as to how high-speed data can help a company achieve better results, but added that the technology still isn’t at its peak yet.

Although many wireless vendors want customers to think this technology is at the third generation (3G) level, it still has half a generation to go, Chaisatien said.

“Now, with the new technology known in the industry as two-and-a half or 2.5G, it enables faster wireless data speed. How fast? It is equivalent to your home line dial-up, so not that great yet, but it is much improved from what we had a few years ago.”

According to Len Dvorkin, project manager of the mobile data project at Purolator in Mississauga, the scanners – called the Symbol PDT 7500 – are basically personal computers in a rugged shell. For the new solutions, GPRS modems were added to the scanners to make them capable of wireless transmission.

“The transmissions go across the network and come across VPN tunnels to our back-end servers. Messages can also go from our back end to the couriers,” Dvorkin said. “We can use it to allow dispatchers to send messages to couriers on the road and the couriers to respond to those messages.”

Dvorkin’s advice to companies who are planning to implement a GPRS solution is to make sure the company offering the technology has the coverage needed.

“What we did before we went through the roll out is we wanted to verify that Rogers’ coverage was where they said it was. They talked about the 93 percent of Canada coverage but it was very important for us to verify it,” Dvorkin said. “We did a cross Canada verification where we put a coverage test on almost all of our routes and we compiled the data to verify the coverage. In our case the results were very good.”

He added that the most important thing to remember when implementing this technology is that GPRS can’t be implemented, then left alone, it must be continuously checked.

“And then put in monitoring so that if something that works this week, doesn’t work next week, you’ll know about it as soon as, if not sooner than your mobile user,” Dvorkin said.

With the new technology, couriers are able to enter information about each package after every stop. This system will enable the customer to access information about their shipment within five minutes of pickup.

Enviro-Test’s Hill said that since the implementation of the GPRS technology, tracking packages has become a lot easier.

“The biggest change is when something goes missing. Purolator’s mobile wireless service makes it easy for me to determine exactly where a package is after it leaves the door. I’m also easily able to see who signed for the package when it was received,” Hill said.

Dvorkin added that to track packages, customers can log on to the company’s Web site, use e-mail or use one of Purolator’s desktop shipping solutions.