Towing on the Net

The Internet has grown significantly in the last several years. Almost all businesses today use email for everyday correspondence. It is being used in the towing industry by motorclubs and towers alike. The motorclubs dispatch calls and accept claims over the Internet. Many towers are using it to send pages to drivers, to track their truck locations, and in some cases they have even virtually eliminated the radio by using two-way pages or Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs). The next generation of towing software promises an even greater integration with the Internet.
This trend is likely to continue because of the dramatic cost savings that can be realized using the Internet. Motorclub calls now take less than 3 minutes from start to finish using Digital Dispatch. Whereas before, using the phone, a call could take 5-10 minutes. These few minutes add up to tremendous savings for both motorclubs and service providers.

You can even locate a service provider online using sites like http://www.wrecker.com/. The call can then be sent via email, fax, phone, and using digital dispatch like the motorclubs.
The next generation of towing software and management systems promises to be completely integrated with the Internet. You will no longer have to have an expensive, high-powered server networked with several fast workstations to run your towing software. Furthermore these networks require a true computer geek to keep them fine-tuned and running. Backups will be a thing of the past. Access from home is presently complex and slow. This too will no longer be a problem with the newer towing software packages. An Application Service Provider (ASP) will run these packages from a central location. These new solutions can be accessed from anywhere with your security code and an Internet connection (office, home, motel room, etc).
When it comes to Internet connections you have many affordable choices today. The table below lists the common types available:

Dial-up : 28.8 – 53kbs*, $0-25/month - AOL, AT&T, Earthlink, MSN, CoreComm, MCI,etc.

ISDN: 64kbs or 128kbs, $40-70/month - Earthlink, MSN, Telocity, AT&T, MCI, etc.

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line): 128 - 1544Kbs, $40-300/month - Earthlink, MSN, Telocity, AT&T, MCI, etc.

Cable: 56 - 1544kbs, $40-70/month - Time Warner, Adelphi, CableVision, etc

Satellite (2-way): 150 - 500kbs, $40-70/month - Starband, MSN, DishNetwork, DirectPC/DirectTV, etc.

Frame Relay: 56 - 1544kbs, $200-1500/month - Ameritech, GTE, MCI, AT&T, etc.

Fractional – Full T1: 128 - 1544kbs, $250-1500/month - Ameritech, GTE, MCI, AT&T, etc.

* 53kbs is the maximum allowed by the FCC. So even if you have a 56Kbs modem it cannot connect faster than 53kbs.

The connection speed you choose depends on your budget and what you need to do on the Internet. Internet (email) paging and Digital Dispatch do not need a very fast connection. A simple dial-up connection will provide enough speed, but it is not very reliable. You may want to choose one of the other connection types. IDSL, Cable, Satellite, Frame Relay and T1 all stay connected full time. This means they do not need to “dial out” to establish an Internet connection; they are always connected just like a workstation on your Local Area Network (LAN). After all, the Internet is nothing but a big LAN.

This is the premise behind the next generation of towing software. The application will be run from a secure server farm (several servers working together) and each towing company will just be a user on the network. Therefore you will only need a low cost computer, a security code and access to the Internet. The set-up time will be a matter of minutes instead of weeks. The average person can setup the computer and download the software instead of having to pay the high costs of flying in a technician. Most users will be able to follow the onscreen instructions and will not require weeks of training. However, training will probably still be required for the more advanced features. Addionally, there will be little or no maintenance costs. You will simply pay a monthly fee in addition to your regular Internet costs. These types of solutions should save the average company thousands dollars each year; not to mention the many headaches associated with running your own internal network (e.g. hard drive crashes, failed backups).

I spoke with a company owner last week about a major system crash. He lost an entire year’s worth of data and did not have a good backup. His backup failed due to the fact that his backup software was unable to backup his data while the towing software was running. Since they are running a 24/7 operation, they just didn’t have the time to shut down the towing software to run the backup. He thought it was backing up but his tapes were blank. Has this ever happened to you? This type of problem will not happen in the future because the ASP (Application Service Provider) handles technical issues, such as backups, behind the scenes.
Now let’s talk about some of the present ways people are using the Internet in their towing business.

Paging is probably the most common task being done through the Internet. Any company that has a full time connection to the Internet can utilize email paging. To send a page: you can go to your paging company’s web site or if your towing software is Internet enabled, you can send a page from within your program. Some software packages even offer two-way paging, but this requires you use expensive 2-way pagers for all your drivers. Email paging may be faster than standard dial-up paging, it all depends on your paging company. Many towing companies use email paging as a backup to their dial-up paging, because if a paging company’s dial-up sever goes down, it probably will not affect their email paging server – so you can send your pages using email. This too is dependant on your particular paging company. There are new technologies, such as Simple Network Paging Protocol (SNPP), that will enable your software to detect when a page has been received by your driver using standard low cost pagers.
This capability is already available if you have CDPD mobile data terminals. These systems use the Digital Cellular and the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) networks to provide two-way communication as well as truck location and speed. They utilize the Internet to send/receive data (messages) to/from your trucks. @road and Airlink Communications are two of the major players in this type of technology. For a monthly fee @road allows you to completely monitor and configure your MDT from their web site. They even give you an interactive online map to show your truck present and past truck locations. Airlink on the other hand does not charge you a monthly access fee, because the maps reside on your local server. You need to decide which solution works best for your needs.

Digital Dispatch is used by some motorclubs to send calls to service providers using the Internet. In the future you will even be able to submit your invoices to the motorclubs using this technology. This is because many of the motorclubs and towing software vendors have been working together to establish a standard protocol for sending calls and submitting invoices. Presently, a couple of the software vendors have the ability to directly receive calls from GE, which means the call appears on your dispatch screen. The other software vendors and motorclubs are working on similar solutions. The Internet solution from the other motorclubs requires you keep your browser pointed to their web site. When a call comes in you need to print it and then type it into your towing management software.

Several of the motorclubs also offer the service providers a way to submit their invoices online from their website. However, Digital Dispatch promises a much easier and automated solution in the future.

The Internet offers a benefit for every size towing company by using one or more of the following technologies: Digital Dispatch, paging, GPS/MDT, or submitting invoices to motorclubs. The next generation (ASP) towing management systems promises to deliver solutions that are much easier to use, more integrated with the Internet and utilize all of the present technologies as well as a few new technologies, such as Instant Messaging and Internet enabled cell phones.

I neglected to answer an important question that is probably on your minds – Is it safe? They simple answer is, Yes. In fact it safer than your telephone, since much of the data sent is encrypted. I will save this topic as well as remote access to your software using Microsoft’s Terminal Services for a future article on Internet technologies.

Todd Althouse is a Managing Partner of Beacon Software, LLC - an Internet Application development company.

This article was published in the September 2001 issue of American Towman Magazine.
For more information on Beacon Software products visit: http://www.beaconsoftco.com/Products/index.htm.
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