Avis goes wireless to fuel efficiency

Broadband system will capture digital signatures, speed customer service, repairs

Avis Group Holdings Inc. said last week that it will roll out broadband wireless LANs at about 700 car rental locations to speed up customer check-in and car returns. The high-speed wireless LANs will allow Avis to capture digital signatures from customers in real time and transmit the signed documents directly to the company's enterprise information system.

Since 1984, Avis lot attendants have used handheld wireless packet data terminals. But due to its relatively low bandwidth (approximately 8K bit/sec.), packet radio can't support digital signature capture and other applications that Larry Kinder, the company's senior vice president and CIO, said he wants to deploy.

Kinder said he sees the wireless LANs, which have a maximum throughput of 11M bit/ sec., as the answer.

"This will enhance the customer experience. . . . It's going to give the customer a very quick way to check in and return a vehicle," Kinder said in an interview last week.

Bob Egan, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said that to his knowledge, Avis is the first rental car company to adopt wireless LANs to support its operations. Egan said the Avis rollout is indicative of how this is "the year of the wireless LAN," with a wide range of businesses expected to adopt the technology to support an increasingly mobile workforce with mobile applications that tie into enterprise systems.

Vicki DeMarco, executive vice president for information technology at Avis Rental Car Inc., said the wireless LAN system is being supplied by Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y. Avis Rental Car is a unit of Avis Group, both of which are based in Garden City, N.Y.

Efficiency in Sight

The system will provide the company with "a complete wireless infrastructure that will extend beyond check-in and checkout," DeMarco said. "It will also support maintenance, repairs and training. . . . It will help make our overall operation more efficient."

Symbol will provide Avis with its model 7500 handheld terminals running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE 3.0 operating system, according to Vinnie Luciano, Symbol's vice president of product management. Avis Europe PLC in Bracknell, U.K., which is separate from Avis Group, earlier this year tapped Symbol to develop an advanced car check-in and return information system that's based on Microsoft's Pocket PC.

DeMarco said Avis Group opted for the Symbol Windows CE-powered handheld because of its adaptability. The company wanted a terminal that's "flexible, programmable and can be easily enhanced," she said. "We don't want to be locked into something that can't be changed."

Avis and Symbol have kicked off a four- to six-month application development effort that DeMarco said will help the firm "discover" uses and functions for the CE device "once we put it into people's hands."

With the 7500, billing information is transmitted to wireless LAN access points at an airport. It's then transmitted to a local PC or server, which in turn feeds into the company's enterprise information system.

Avis also wants to incorporate the wireless LAN technology into its airport shuttle bus fleet, letting customers check in while proceeding to the lot. The terminal on the shuttle would transmit the data to the Avis corporate system once it's within range of the LAN, which Luciano said is "a couple of hundred feet, depending on the installation."

The Symbol 7500 includes a bar code scanner and what Luciano called a "one-handed keyboard." They should give Avis agents greater flexibility than the older handheld terminals, he said.

Avis has begun pilot testing of the wireless LAN systems at four major airports - Chicago's O'Hare, New York's LaGuardia, San Francisco and Pittsburgh - with each representing various levels of difficulty of installation, Luciano said.

For example, LaGuardia poses less of a challenge than the new central rental-car building at the San Francisco airport, where Avis operates on multiple levels. Luciano said that in a location such as San Francisco, Avis may need to install as many as 20 access points, while at smaller airports, "they probably will only need two: one for the counter, and one for the lot," he said.

Though the pilots are under way, Avis hasn't specified a time frame for the deployment.

Because the Symbol LAN operates under the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance standard embraced by more than 30 manufacturers, DeMarco said she also sees an opportunity to develop partnerships with public-access wireless LAN companies such as Wayport Inc. in Austin, Texas, and MobileStar Network Corp. in Richardson, Texas. These companies have set up wireless LANs at major airports to provide road warriors with high-speed Internet access for a fee.

Egan said a partnership between Avis and the public-access companies "could provide Avis with a revenue stream if customers can use the network."

The Avis decision to go with wireless LANs was a "smart move," said Egan, as the higher-speed LAN should improve customer service.

Spokesmen for the The Hertz Corp. in Park Ridge, N.J., and Alamo Rent A Car LLC in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., were unable to confirm by deadline whether their companies have any wireless LAN plans.

While Avis declined to disclose the value of the deal with Symbol, Egan estimated that it's likely to be in the neighborhood of $3 million.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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