Couriers juggle wireless vendors

Signing deals with both Telecom and Vodafone has been a key plank to CourierPost's upgrade of its wireless architecture, says sales and service IT support manager Colin Burrow.

Signing deals with both Telecom and Vodafone has been a key plank to CourierPost's upgrade of its wireless architecture, says sales and service IT support manager Colin Burrow (pictured).

CourierPost, the courier division of NZ Post, first installed wireless technology in 1999, with cellular and CDPD from Telecom. Burrow told a New Zealand Computer Society audience in Auckland last week that last year the technology needed upgrading.

"The existing technology was at the end of its lifecycle -- after three years we were going to have to replace it."

Burrows says the company "wanted to take it to the next step, so couriers could download data on the fly -- we wanted them to be able to get information directly into their hands, not at the depot".

Other goals were the ability to scan barcodes from other courier companies, to work as close to real time as possible and to better integration with back-end systems.

The new approach called for provision from multiple vendors. The end result of eight providers called for tight vendor management, Burrow says.

"We wanted something robust, reliable and low-cost and wanted some independence from vendors."

Being network-independent was also a key objective. Vodafone's GPRS technology won most business initially, as Telecom's CDMA1x network was rolled out during the upgrade.

Gerard Dunne, a consultant who worked on the project, says there were many choices for various parts of the technology platform, including whether to install a database or a message queuing system. There are several implementations of the latter, including IBM's MQ Series, which CourierPost uses.

"We found [message queuing] was more reliable, stable and robust for delivery from a wireless network to a back-end system."

Another choice was between Microsoft CE and Palm OS, with the latter winning because of its stability and the fact it's the more common of the two in deployments such as CourierPost's.

Hardware-wise, 540 Symbol SPT 1800 handhelds were chosen and Siemens and Kyocera handsets for GPRS and CDMA respectively.

Key to the whole project, Dunne says, was getting the eight vendors together early on and working through the handovers from one vendor to another.

The appointment of a person to oversee testing, of which there was a lot before full implementation, was also vital, as was getting someone on board to be a "technology champion", Dunne says.

"We needed someone who could stand up and say 'this is going to work."

Getting guaranteed coverage from both Telecom and Vodafone at any site was a priority, as there was a danger many couriers in one cell may overload capacity and experience problems.

"We asked them to commit to boosting sites if they got overloaded."

Moving from batch processing to real time caused problems, forcing a return to batch processing, but in one- or two-second batches.

The new system went live in August, and to date nearly all CourierPost couriers have switched over, with 40 left on the old system.

Goals for the future include adding functionality, such as enabling transmission of photos of package recipients, to provide a higher degree of verification than a signature.

Burrow says the benefits of the new wireless system are already being felt.

"We're experiencing a drop in communications costs."

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