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Wheels of Change: Transport companies switch to better communication options

September 01, 2011
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In the past two years, the Indian transportation sector has witnessed considerable growth. In the aviation industry, for instance, after a decline of over 6 per cent in traffic in 2008-09 owing to the global economic slowdown, passenger traffic recovered to 123.7 million in 2009-10, a rise of 13.7 per cent over the previous year. Cargo traffic also went up by 15.2 per cent over the previous fiscal, touching about 2 million tonnes (mt).

Similarly, in 2010-11, Indian Railways (IR) posted passenger earnings of Rs 2,600.79 million, a growth of 9.54 per cent over the previous year. The freight segment witnessed substantial growth too. During 2010-11, IR carried 921.51 mt of freight, an increase of 3.77 per cent over the previous year.

Healthy growth translates into a demand for better facilities, including telecom. As a result, major players in this sector have deployed the best in technology so as to establish a robust and efficient communication infrastructure.

Automation in transportation started on a small note. Initially, simple local area networks and computers were used, primarily for emails. This infrastructure offered limited functionality. Over time, with the size and scale of operations increasing, it became imperative to adopt advanced telecom facilities. The companies’ objective was to connect their central offices with several worksites in order to keep track of the project remotely and in real time, with the capability of transferring images, video and data.

Today, technology has permeated all levels of functioning and business processes, with automation of most activities from ticket reservation to customer care. For example, Kingfisher Airlines, in order to streamline the passenger check-in process, adopted the “roving agent” programme, which offers a combination of web browser and PDA functionality. It provides airport staff with real-time wireless, portable access to the airline’s host reservation and departure control systems. Similarly, SMS-based ticket booking facilities were introduced, enabling customers to book tickets, get flight updates and cancel tickets via their mobile handsets.

For road transportation, companies utilised the online ticket accounting system (OLTAS) to manage the daily collection of tickets and revenue generated therefrom. Some of the other technologies that were brought in are data warehousing and the global positioning system (GPS), which helps the companies track their fleet.

IR, said to have the biggest rail network in the world, uses the internet as a strategic tool. Its website offers facilities such as ticket booking, PNR status check and train status enquiry, and displays train schedules. IR also has its own e-ticketing service, which eliminates the need for travel agents and is very traveller friendly. To avail of the e-ticketing service, passengers need to merely go through a free, one-time registration. The service charge levied is Rs 5 per ticket for sleeper class and Rs 10 for all other classes.

The transportation sector adopted a mix of wireless and wireline technologies. For wide area network connectivity, for instance, DLC (local loop), ISDN, VSATs, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, internet and MPLS were widely used. DLC (local loop) was used to connect to the internet and as back-up.

Apart from this, several software applications were used in this vertical. These include enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), SAP and instant messaging. Mobile and enterprise applications also, became popular. The most widely used of these were web hosting, VOIP, instant messaging and hosted messaging.

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

In all, it is clear that companies in the aviation, railways and shipping segments have come to rely on telecom in a big way. It not only allows robust connectivity which is critical to the transportation sector but also helps companies in this space to maintain cost efficiencies accruing from better management of business processes.

tele.net conducted a survey of 10 companies in the transportation sector. The respondents were asked about their telecommunications infrastructure, key service providers and vendors, and the main issues and concerns with respect to the telecom services they use.

The following questions were asked in the survey:

•  What are the organisation’s key technology requirements?

•  What mix of service providers and vendors is used for various services?

•   What are the key issues and concerns with respect to telecom infrastructure and services?

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

•   What kinds of redundancies have been built into the network?

•   Which network security tools has the organisation implemented?

•   Which applications is the organisation looking to implement in the near future?

Key technology requirements

The results of the survey suggest that for most transportation companies, a flexible IT and telecom infrastructure that facilitates the availability of critical data and information in real time, and encompasses everyone in the value chain – from the company’s vendors and partners to the end-customer – is the top priority.

A mix of wireless and wireline technologies is preferred. For example, for wide area network connectivity, DLC (local loop), ISDN, VSATs, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, internet and MPLS are widely used. DLC (local loop) is being used to connect to the internet and as back-up. For example, Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL) uses this medium to avail of an “always on” connection between two end-points. “Companies like ours deal with a lot of traffic. Leased lines not only provide a reliable and stable medium but more bandwidth as well, vis-à-vis plain old telephone lines or ISDN connections,” said the RVNL respondent.

For wireless connectivity on the office premises, Wi-Fi has proved to be a convenient medium. For example, it is an integral part of the Delhi Transport Corporation’s (DTC) overall communications infrastructure, as it enables its LAN to be installed without cabling for client devices, thus reducing the cost of network installation and expansion.

The internet is used as a strategic communication tool by all companies. Apart from standard email, each company’s website provides customers and business partners with relevant information, apart from standard company-related information.

VSATs are a popular medium among transport companies to connect with their branch offices. Says Abhijit Das, deputy manager, administration, Haldia Dock Complex (HDC), “Our VSAT infrastructure was part of our internet and email set-up. This technology gave us benefits such as versatility, flexibility and the ability to accommodate email and internet usage without the need for land cables and thus avoiding the usual problems of cable cutting, etc.”

Also, keeping in mind their scale of operations, most transportation companies have a well-established set-up for international connectivity as well. This is usually a multi-tiered infrastructure, with technologies such as IP-VPNs (for international data connectivity), MPLS and IPLCs being the most widely deployed.

For last mile connectivity, DSL is widely utilised, followed by optic fibre and wireless connectivity. For example, Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL) uses DSL to access the internet. This medium gives KRCL secure access to the internet as well as high bandwidth and easy integration with other connectivity options. Besides, wireless mediums such as Wi-Fi, radio frequency (RF), data cards and Wi-Max are also being used, though in a limited manner.

Apart from this, several software applications are being used by the organisations surveyed. These include ERP, CRM, SAP and instant messaging. According to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) respondent, the company’s SAP infrastructure includes 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 were designed to be easily upgradable, maintainable and flexible in a changing business environment.

Interestingly, DMRC also uses an in-house mail server and an IT helpdesk for troubleshooting. Says the respondent, “The company’s IT helpdesk helps facilitate the registration of online complaints related to IT, either by a web application or via email. After dealing with the problem, the status of the IT complaint is updated on the helpdesk server and the user is informed of the updated status by an automatically generated email.”

Service providers and vendors of choice

The survey shows that the services of companies such as Bharti airtel, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Tata Communications, Tata Teleservices Limited, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Wipro Primus, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, IBM, Spectranet and Hewlett-Packard are the most widely used for last mile and WAN technologies.

Interestingly, the railways and shipping companies usually opt for a single service provider or vendor to meet their communication and network requirements, since their communication infrastructure is typically not multi-tiered. For example, BSNL’s services are used by such companies for DLC (local loop and NLD), ISDN and Ethernet.

On the other hand, road transport companies and airlines typically use multiple service providers and vendors. Such companies prefer Tata Communications for wireless connectivity, Bharti airtel for Ethernet and Sify for MPLS and IP-VPN connectivity.

Key issues and concerns

Connectivity, uptime, reliability, security, availability and cost of bandwidth and equipment are the key concerns of players in the transportation space.

For Kingfisher Airlines, the availability of communication links is a major challenge. Says the airline respondent, “There are some situations that are beyond the control of the provider, for instance, fibre cuts. The fibre that transmits all the data can get damaged because of an external condition in the periphery of the location. For example, fibre often gets damaged in areas where a lot of construction is taking place. This is not within our control or that of the provider. We want that the provider should fix it or route the traffic through some other fibre during such incidents.”

RVNL raises the twin issues of connectivity and uptime. The company respondent feels that since RVNL deals with heavy amounts of network traffic on a day-to-day basis, a solid communication infrastructure is one of the basic necessities, and ideally, there should be no trouble in establishing such a trouble-free network.

The cost of telecom equipment is a key area of concern for DTC. The company respondent is of the opinion that telecom equipment is out of reach for many small enterprises, owing to its exorbitant prices. This should be checked and manufacturers should be made aware of the fact that such equipment is a must-have for all and not for just a handful of players.

Mobile and enterprise applications

A host of enterprise applications is currently being used. These include web hosting, videoconferencing, VOIP and audioconferencing, instant messaging, hosted messaging and collaboration, toll-free services and Web 2.0. Video- and audioconferencing are widely used, as they are economical mediums of communication and help reduce travel time as well as keep track of day-to-day activities in an easy and secure manner.

Transportation majors are also using enterprise mobility applications. Mobile email, mobile data connectivity, conferencing, personal information management, push alerts, and sales force automation are popular among them.

Network redundancy

For back-up, the transportation space utilises a mix of telecom infrastructure such as leased lines, ISDN lines, UPS back-up, VSAT, network switches, routers, data back-up and applications such as data archiving and data recovery.

Network security

The survey shows that multiple network security mediums are used by players in this space. These include firewalls, proxy servers, access logs, security audits, OS security patches, user authentication and intrusion detection.

The road ahead

Most players in these verticals have chalked out network expansion plans.

According to B.V. Meshram, vice-president, IT, The Shipping Corporation of India, the company plans to implement functions such as business planning continuity as well as set up a disaster recovery centre in the future. It also intends to opt for security audits and certification.

Companies such as HDC have also drawn up telecom-related plans. Says Das, “We have a four-pronged IT and telecom road map in mind. Our first priority is augmentation of the network, including implementation of IT security mediums, aside from augmentation of server infrastructure, comprehensive restructuring of application software, including our e-portal and implementation of biometric access control and camera surveillance.”

DMRC though has a relatively simple plan in mind. The company intends to implement videoconferencing at each remote location.

Net, net, it is evident that a strong telecom backbone that streamlines communication flow and ensures business continuity is the need of the hour. Companies in the transport vertical have understood this and have left no stone unturned to deploy the very best.

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