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Better, Smarter, Faster: Transportation companies streamline operations through telecom

August 31, 2012
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The Indian transportation industry has continued to grow over the past year. In 2011-12, the country’s ports handled 930.15 million tonnes (mt) of cargo traffic, a growth of 5.13 per cent over the previous year.

The road sector has also witnessed strong growth, driven mainly by various central and state government initiatives. Measures taken at the central level include policy revision, strict project deadlines, setting of ambitious targets and the launch of mega highway projects. The states have also awarded key projects to expedite road development. These initiatives have resulted in increased private sector participation in the development of both national highways and state roads.

Similarly, traffic at Indian airports has witnessed a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.56 per cent over the past five years.

This trend is likely to continue in the future. For example, cargo traffic at Indian ports is expected to witness a CAGR of 12.6 per cent to reach 1,758 mt by the end of the Twelfth Plan (2017). Similarly, several road development and expansion projects are lined up for national highways, and state and rural roads. As per the Report of the Working Group for Roads, Rs 4.81 trillion will be invested in national highways and Rs 5.22 trillion in state roads during 2012-17.

Transportation companies are realising the importance of investing in telecom networks to capitalise on the opportunities provided by this growth. A robust telecom infrastructure will improve connectivity, monitoring and management as well as streamline operations.

Transportation companies are increasingly using  mediums such as SMS and the internet to achieve these objectives. For instance, airlines have introduced an SMS-based ticket booking facility through which customers can book tickets, check flight updates and cancel tickets using mobile handsets.

In addition, Indian Railways has been leveraging the internet as a strategic tool. The medium has enabled ticket booking, PNR status check and train status enquiry through the company website, which also provides information related to train schedules and status.

Applications such as global positioning system (GPS) have also gained popularity. Companies like the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), Meru Cabs and maritime organisations use this application to track the movement of their fleet. GPS provides automated identification and real-time visibility, and helps to track shipments and fleet, thereby reducing logistical errors.

Standard mediums such as Wi-Fi, MPLS and VSATs are also extensively used. For instance, Kingfisher Airlines uses MPLS circuits to ensure strong connectivity amongst its offices and operational locations.

Apart from this, several software applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), SAP and instant messaging are used. Among mobile and enterprise applications, web hosting, VoIP, instant messaging and hosted messaging are being used extensively.

DMRC has deployed SAP infrastructure, which offers various modules, such as an FI module (which focuses on finance and controlling), an HR module (which deals with personnel administration), an MM module (which focuses on material management and purchasing), an RE module (for property development and real estate), a PM module (for plant and machinery maintenance), and a PS module (for project systems). These individual software modules are easily upgradable, maintainable and flexible in a changing business environment.

Enterprise mobility applications such as mobile email, mobile data connectivity, conferencing, personal information management, push alerts and sales force automation have also caught on.

Like every other vertical, securing the telecom network is a key priority for transportation companies. For this purpose, companies use security operations control centres, storage area networks, access log, security audits, operating system security patches, user authentication, intrusion detection and firewalls.

Going forward, transportation companies are looking to deploy technologies like near field communication (NFC) for ticketing. NFC is a short-range, high frequency wireless communication technology that enables data exchange between devices located at a distance of about 4 inches – the device functions like a contactless card or a radio frequency identification tag. The technology has been deployed in countries such as Japan and France. It enables passengers to use their phones or other NFC-enabled devices to buy tickets and receive journey-related information. Similarly, an automated traveller information system can be used to provide static and real-time information related to transit delays, traffic reports and incidents.

tele.net undertook a survey amongst key companies in the transportation space to assess their telecom requirements and solutions.

The following questions were asked in the survey:

•   What are the company’s key technology requirements?

•   What mix of service providers and vendors is used?

•   What are the biggest concerns with respect to telecom infrastructure?

•   What are some of the mobility and enterprise applications that the organisaton has implemented?

•   Which network security tools has the organisation implemented?

•   What redundancy tools are being utilised by the company?

•   Which new product or service holds the most interest or relevance for the organisation?

Key technology requirements

Telecom plays an important role in the operations of transportation companies. The main technological requirements of these players are high-speed, efficient and flexible operations.

To achieve this, most transportation companies have deployed a telecom network that helps in redefining their technology strategies to remain competitive, optimise operations, control businesses costs, reduce technology complexity and expedite growth.

The respondents have used telecom tools like EPABX, LAN, Ethernet, ISDN, leased lines, Wi-Fi, radio frequency and VPNs to achieve these objectives.

Of these, LAN, EPABX, leased lines, ISDN, VSATs and Wi-Fi connectivity are the most widely used mediums. For example, Meru Cabs uses leased lines as the backbone of its telecom network. The platform has inbuilt redundancy and connects the company’s operations in each city to its central data centre in Mumbai. These leased lines are a combination of 2 MB and 45 MB links provided by telecom partners including Bharti Airtel, Tata Teleservices Limited (TTSL) and Vodafone India.

Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL) uses an optic fibre cable (OFC)-based network. DIAL uses a passive communication network, which comprises OFC and Cat 6 cabling.

The Kandla Port Trust (KPT) and the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) have deployed a multi-tiered communication set-up. KPT uses ISDN along with leased lines. ISDN offers the port high bandwidth to support voice, data and video traffic while leased lines provide reliable, cost-effective and high-speed connectivity.

According to B.V. Meshram, vice-president, IT, SCI, the company uses a mix of wireline and wireless technologies in its telecom set-up.

Its WAN is based on an MPLS backbone and consists of point-to-point high-speed links between the data centre and the head office.

At the Mumbai-based head office, and the Kolkata and Delhi offices, SCI uses wireline connections as primary links and wireless connections as a secondary link. The bandwidth of the network at these offices is 10 Mbps, 2 Mbps and 512 kbps respectively. At the company’s Powai and Chennai offices, wireline links with a bandwidth of 8 Mbps and 2 Mbps respectively are used. The Haldia office uses two wireless connections with a total capacity of 512 kbps. At the Port Blair office, a connection provided by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) is used as the primary link, while two ISDN lines are used as a secondary link. The total bandwidth is 256 kbps.

Three managed leased lines are also used, which originate from the company’s office at Nariman Point and connect to those located at MDC and Worli.

Several respondents have established a data centre as well. For example, the Cochin Port Trust (CPT) has set up a data centre for functions such as ensuring server uptime, data recovery and backup, and storage management.

Several IT-based tools and applications are also being used. For example, Meru Cabs uses the ERP and CRM platforms. The company also utilises GPRS for ensuring connectivity with cabs that use mobile applications.

Kingfisher Airlines uses two main tools – an interface built by a few of its online travel agents to simplify the process of checking ticket availability and a SAP-based system to store operational data on an online data warehousing platform. This would enable the company to access daily, weekly or monthly data and monitor performance. Kingfisher Airlines has been using this system for several years and is currently enhancing its user friendliness.

The internet is being leveraged as a strategic tool by most respondents. For instance, CPT utilises the internet to reach out to its customers and vendors. Users can access company information, financials, recent initiatives, etc. through the website and track the movement of their containers via GPRS-enabled mobile handsets or the website.

Service providers and vendors

Companies in the transportation space use the services of a mix of IT and telecom service providers such as BSNL, Tata Communications, Bharti Airtel, TTSL, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), Reliance Communications, Wipro, IBM, Oracle, Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent and Sify Technologies Limited.

Key issues and concerns

Timely technology upgradation, selecting the appropriate technology and vendor, integration of multiple technologies, the increasing cost of technology and equipment, network downtime, and the limited  availability of telecom products for the transportation segment as well as bandwidth are the major issues faced by these companies.

For example, CPT faces the issue of network downtime. According to the respondent, even a few hours of downtime can impact daily operations, especially because the port’s network needs to support large volumes of data. Also, timely technology upgradation as per requirement is a challenge for both CPT and KPT.

DIAL faces the issue of integrating multiple technologies on to one platform. According to the company respondent, “We have over 50 interfaces through which one system passes information to another. Designing and testing of these interfaces are major challenges.”

The unavailability of uniform GPRS coverage and systems, products and processes for the transportation industry are major issues for Meru Cabs.

Mobile and enterprise applications

Most of the respondents use enterprise applications like web hosting, videoconferencing, instant messaging, toll-free services, VoIP and audioconferencing.

Mobile data connectivity, corporate intranet and sales force automation are the widely used mobile applications.

Network redundancy

For backup, transportation companies utilise firewalls, security audits, storage area network (SAN) systems, security operation control centres, leased lines, ISDN lines and data archiving.

Network security

Most of the respondents have a multi-tiered security set-up. DIAL uses a security operation control centre, which is responsible for 24x7 monitoring and reporting.

The Haldia Dock Complex uses a SAN system, which provides it benefits such as storing huge volumes of information in a centralised system; providing fast access to information; facilitating the backup and disaster recovery process; as well as allowing for future data and information addition.

KPT uses three network security mediums – access log, security audits and firewalls. These audits evaluate the security of the company’s information system by measuring its conformity with certain criteria and firewalls protect the resources of the port’s network from external security threats.

The way forward

Most of the respondents intend to strengthen their telecom networks over the next year. “Going forward, we are looking at implementing technologies to improve customer support at airports. We are also planning to integrate a few more systems to increase operational flexibility,” says the respondent from DIAL.

SCI plans to provide a secured connection for various applications and web portals; integrate the SMS platform with SAP; implement a dedicated videoconferencing facility; set up infrastructure that supports webinar sessions; establish a WAN for the company’s disaster recovery site; and implement WAN optimisation solutions.

Kingfisher Airlines plans to use mobility-based tools in its communication set-up. “Going forward, we will focus on incorporating more mobility-based applications, which will help us better integrate our systems. These applications will be used only for our airport operations,” says the spokesperson.

All in all, the adoption of these cutting-edge technologies by transportation companies has been key to maintaining their competitiveness.

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