In-vehicle connectivity: What’s the big deal?

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The ability to extend network connectivity to vehicles has significantly improved the way that countless organisations do business, revolutionising everything from blue light emergency services to mass transit and school buses.  But wireless in-vehicle deployments are not without challenges.  The mobile nature of these networks presents many obstacles.

Modern organisations now have multiple connected devices in each vehicle including tablets, video cameras, and payment devices.  Rather than maintaining an Internet connection for each device, many are now seeking to create a single LAN to connect all of their in-vehicle devices.  But why is this trend emerging?  And why does the transformative potential extend far beyond simple device management?

Need for in-vehicle connectivity

As digital transformation continues to create the need for a flexible, agile network, traditional tethers to the central office have all but vanished.  Physical boundaries continue to decrease in importance, and organisations of all types require constant and dependable in-vehicle connectivity to keep up with changing business imperatives and to engage with their customers outside traditional venues.  Dependable mobile connectivity keeps vehicles on the road longer, helps enterprises better manage their fleets, and allows businesses and organisations to better serve their customers.

For mobile enterprises that can’t afford downtime, 4G LTE networking solutions are a reliable, secure, and cost effective means to ensure always-on connectivity.  Of course, the transportation sector and in-vehicle connectivity presents challenges not found in a traditional office environment.  For instance, travelling along bumpy roads, traversing service areas, and powering devices using a vehicle battery are all factors that require special consideration and planning.  A full in-vehicle networking solution should take into account all aspects of virtual and physical layouts, as well as anticipated usage.  It’s not just about choosing a hardware and data plan; organisations need to consider how to optimise a reliable, comprehensive solution that extends their network to the road and beyond.  For many, this means a single LAN is required to make these connections and optimise their usage.

Why this trend is emerging

Organisations are deploying network connectivity in fleet vehicles for a whole host of reasons.  Internet of Things (IoT) systems now make it possible to automatically update and track inventory.  GPS tracking gives businesses the ability to do more than identify the locations of their fleet vehicles. Businesses can monitor stops, watch for unnecessary trips and mileage, and recognise safe drivers—all from a remote location using cloud-based software.

With constant mobile connectivity, vehicles can deploy digital signage that can be configured and updated from a remote location.  For enterprises with security concerns, the video-streaming capability offers the advantage of real-time surveillance, making it possible to monitor security from a remote location and alert authorities immediately when problems arise.

First responders and emergency services use mission-critical mobile connectivity to monitor, analyse, and diagnose patients on the road.  Paramedics can access vital information and update records immediately, while law enforcement officers use secure connectivity to check drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations, and file digital incident reports in real time.  These features and more help enterprises keep their people on the road longer and at headquarters less often.

When it comes to commercial in-vehicle connectivity, today’s transit commuters and leisure travellers want Internet access almost as much as they want a seat and an on-time arrival.  Offering guest WiFi is simply part and parcel of creating a good customer experience.  Rolling enterprises must be able to offer commuters heightened productivity while blocking undesirable content and managing bandwidth usage.

Challenges and best practices

Decision makers should move strategically when deploying mobile connectivity solutions by following industry best practices.  It is beneficial to view the fleet network not simply as a separate technical endeavour, but rather as an extension of the organisation’s existing systems.  The network should be deployed to integrate seamlessly with existing infrastructure, and the LAN should be “opened up” to include its vehicles.

For optimal operation, wireless routers require regular software and firmware updates, configuration, maintenance, and troubleshooting.  One challenge for many organisations is that they are logistically unable to dock their fleet several times a week in a centralised location to install updates, fix issues, or even transmit data.  A software-defined, cloud-based remote management platform can enable software and firmware updates, configurations, security patches, and maintenance of wireless devices from a remote location, all the while ensuring that sensitive data stays safe.  Also, because a mobile router on a cellular network utilises dynamic, private IP addresses, the management platform should not require a static IP to connect to the router.

Furthermore, a routing solution should offer the ability to quickly offload large files –such as video surveillance – via non-cellular WAN to help mitigate data usage and get vehicles back on the road faster.

Practical device implications

Reliable connectivity depends on correct placement of the wireless router and antenna, and placement needs differ based on the vehicle design, size, and connectivity expectations.  For instance, vehicles transporting many users could require multiple routers to serve high-volume needs, but usually space is limited.

It is vital for routers to be installed with an understanding of the physical and virtual barriers that may hinder or even sever connectivity.  Each router needs to be correctly placed and installed for maximum connectivity.  The number of devices needed to best serve all passengers must be calculated based on anticipated usage.  It is also recommended to physically secure all network devices and equipment, as many organisations keep networking devices behind a locked panel or in a cabinet.

From trains speeding down the track to school buses navigating bumpy rural roads, vehicles often experience high levels of vibration.  Routers must be able to withstand rough terrain without coming loose from the vehicle or breaking.  Installation brackets should be designed to handle the roughest of terrains without coming unscrewed or breaking. 

When it comes to implementing these networks, organisations need to consider a wider framework with connectivity for the vehicles, people, and devices they now house.  For many organisations, the most effective route will be a solution that provides a single-pane-of-glass view into their whole network – and extend the control and security enjoyed at the branch to the road.   This allows IT and operations teams manage, configure, and troubleshoot the network without needing to bring vehicles back to headquarters, saving time and money.

Connecting all in-vehicle devices with a single LAN is a trend that continues to develop as technologies evolve.  It is predicted that with implementation of Gigabit LTE and 5G, there will be yet another fundamental shift in connectivity.  For now, 4G LTE networks continue to prevail and organisations can depend on this mobile connectivity to allow businesses to realise their full potential and better serve their customers.

Donna Johnson, VP of Product and Solution Marketing, Cradlepoint  
Image Credit: SplitShire / Pexels