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Brown gets creative with wireless

Combining two wireless technologies will allow United Parcel Service to cut the cords at 1,700 hubs, and analysts expect the concept to catch on elsewhere.

United Parcel Service said Friday it has stitched together a network using two wireless technologies to speed package processing at hundreds of its shipping hubs.

The shipping giant, which calls itself "Brown" in its advertising, is beginning to deploy a tracking system that combines the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless technologies. Bluetooth can carry data over several feet, while Wi-Fi has a 300-foot range, making it a popular method of extending Net access in many homes and business.

UPS representative Ginnie Myhr said 55,000 package handlers eventually will get Bluetooth bar code readers that are worn on the finger like a ring. The ring scans a package label and sends the information to a Wi-Fi radio attached to a handler's belt. The radio then sends the information to a central computer.

UPS is testing the new system in four hubs, and it plans to install the gear inside 1,700 U.S. package-sorting centers by 2004, Myhr said.

The system uses equipment built by Symbol Technology.

The $120 million project is the first large-scale deployment of a system in which Bluetooth and Wi-Fi work together on the same task, said Joyce Putcher, director of converging markets and technologies for analyst firm

"I expect a lot more of this," she said.

One of the most common concerns about such combinations is interference. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi use the same set of airwaves, posing a potential to clash in close range. But so far, Putcher said, UPS hasn't told analysts of any interference problems.

Aaron Vance, a wireless analyst with Synergy Research believes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will begin partnering not only in huge warehouses, which are already highly automated, but also in printers and personal digital assistants at home and work.

Handheld computers, for instance, could use a Wi-Fi network to download a large presentation for a business meeting, then use Bluetooth to send the information to a printer, he said. "This is just beginning."