Swedish Post to go wireless

Sweden Post is deploying wireless handheld devices to its drivers so that soon customers will be able to track packages online.

Following in the footsteps of commercial package delivery companies like FedEx or United Parcel Service of America, Sweden Post is in the process of deploying wireless handhelds for delivery workers. The new system is expected to increase efficiency and allow customers to easily track packages online.

The platform replaces a mainly paper-based system, said John Viirman, project leader at Sweden Post. Currently, drivers ask customers to sign a paper form when packages are delivered and those forms make up the record for deliveries. If customers wish to enquire about the status of a package, they call a customer service line and representatives must look through the paper records to track packages. Drivers carry cell phones and receive SMS (Short Message Service) messages about changing their routes to pick up last minute packages.

The new system will do away with the paper-based system, making it easy for customers to track packages online and streamline the recording system. When the platform becomes fully operationally next summer, delivery drivers will arrive at a post facility at the start of the day and pick up one of 2,500 Intermec 761 handheld devices. Every user has a unique identification sign-on, so they'll log onto the devices and electronically receive their route for the day. The drivers will then use the devices to scan and register the packages that are loaded onto their trucks.

When drivers make a delivery, the recipient will accept the package by signing their name on the device. Drivers will also receive messages on the device with orders to make last minute package pick-ups throughout the day.

The devices will send and receive data over a wireless LAN in the post facilities and via GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) in real time outside of the facility. Only some of the facilities will have the wireless LANs, however, and Sweden Post isn't likely to build the wireless networks in all of its facilities. "Mainly, that's because it's expensive," said Viirman. The post has negotiated a good deal with TeliaSonera, the mobile operator in Sweden, so using GPRS in the facilities when available is more cost effective than building new wireless LANs in all the facilities, he said. Where GPRS coverage isn't adequate in the facilities, workers can place the handhelds in a cradle and sync via the wired LAN.

With the wireless platform in place, customers will be able to check the Sweden Post Web site to find that packages were loaded onto trucks in the morning and should be delivered that day. Today, customers must call a customer care center. "That costs us a lot of money," Viirman noted. In the future, the post may also upload recipient signatures so customers can view online the signature of the person accepting the package.

Drivers will continue to carry cell phones for a time because they sometimes need to call customers. However, in the future Viirman hopes to enable a voice capability on the Intermec devices and do away with the separate cell phones.

Sweden Post is developing the platform internally except for the security mechanisms. Viirman's team is using Microsoft's .Net as well as Java on the server side. The system is secured via two products from Columbitech, the Swedish wireless security software specialist, including Columbitech's wireless VPN (virtual private network) and application SDK (Software Development Kit).

"[Columbitech] supports our need of functionality, namely the roaming functionality and the ability to compress data and therefore we felt there was no need for us to develop this by ourselves," said Viirman.

Employing Columbitech's wireless VPN product, the platform maintains a secure session even as workers travel between the wireless LAN and the GPRS network. "Security must be there but it can't ruin the day of the delivery guy so it has to be handled in the background," said Ola Jonnson, Columbitech's chief operating officer. Post drivers may sign in on the device over a wireless LAN while in a post facility and their secure session is maintained even while they leave the coverage area of the wireless LAN and later transmit data over the GPRS network. Without that ability, they'd have to sign in repeatedly throughout the day as they move in and out of coverage areas. "The driver should focus on delivering parcels, not which way they are sending information," said Viirman.

Columbitech's SDK allows the post to employ authentication and encryption using WTLS (Wireless Transport Layer Security), the wireless adaptation of the TLS security layer. WTLS supports mutual authentication, ensuring that the device is actually communicating with the post's servers and not servers that a hacker may try to redirect the devices to. Columbitech's tools also allow the post to support AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) encryption, the standard supported by the U.S. government.

The devices themselves don't store data so information can only be accessed once a user is authorized via the sign-in and once a secure session is established between the device and the post's back-end databases. If the devices are stolen or lost, they can be remotely shut down.

For now, Viirman says the security mechanisms are actually more than the post needs but he hopes to enable payments from the devices in the future. "Then it becomes very important that we can trust that the information is not manipulated," he said.

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