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February 13, 2014

Bus Wi-Fi system considerations for transit agencies

by Rob Taylo - Also by this author

Finding Wi-Fi access on a moving vehicle is still a thrill for many transit riders. But with dozens of municipal public transportation systems across the country offering on-the-go Internet access — for example, Boston,  Oakland, Calif. — it’s clear the future of transportation in this country involves increasing Internet connectivity. Those transit agencies that successfully install dependable Wi-Fi access, such as Calif.-based Santa Clara VTA — often see ridership increases, so operators are eager for mobile Internet solutions.

In this, the first of two blogs on Wi-Fi for public transportation agencies, I examine why a higher end solution is the wiser choice. The complexity of fleet-wide Wi-Fi deployment requires expert engineering. Bus companies opting for too-basic Wi-Fi systems, such as those intended for RV use, are often frustrated by recurrent and costly connectivity failure.

In part two of this series, we explore advantages and capabilities of advanced transit Wi-Fi systems. Below, I have outlined the major differences between basic/low-grade Wi-Fi systems and high-end solutions designed specifically for train and bus systems.

Overall, more advanced train and bus Wi-Fi systems are hardened—they’re designed for rough road conditions. High-end solutions also offer machine-to-machine connectivity with a robust power range and enough bandwidth to accommodate multiple users. Low-end Wi-Fi systems aren’t designed for commercial use, so they tend to present performance problems, as expanded on below.

Common problems with installing basic Wi-Fi systems on commercial buses:

  • Simultaneous user limitations. Generic systems are designed to sustain five or 10 users at once, when a commercial bus may carry 60 people or more. A single rider may connect three devices, thus utilizing most available channels. It’s irritating for agency and rider alike when bus Wi-Fi access is severely limited.
  • Power failures. If a system isn’t designed for moving vehicles, it will likely suffer frequent power spikes, which tend to require system resetting. Beyond the hassle of constantly finagling with too-basic Wi-Fi equipment is the fact that, for union or policy reasons, many bus drivers are not allowed to touch electric components. So no matter how riders cajole, drivers can’t reset the Wi-Fi on the road. How frustrating to have Wi-Fi disabled for the entire trip, until the bus can be adjusted by an authorized mechanic.
  • Poor Antenna Connections. Typically, mobile Wi-Fi systems see the best performance with roof-mounted antennas. However, most low-end mobile Wi-Fi systems do not accommodate roof mounting, and those that do, require a tricky USB card connection that tends to disconnect frequently. When the antenna connection wiggles loose, reception is lost for the vehicle, exasperating riders.
  • Limited Carrier Accessibility. Lower-end Wi-Fi configurations are single-carrier, single-SIM-card systems. Crossing a country line or moving into a certain carrier’s dead zone could interrupt access. Underdeveloped technology limits operational flexibility—there’s no way to switch to a different carrier for increased range.
  • No Fleet-wide Software. Without a single system overseeing performance, it’s very difficult to implement effective Wi-Fi access. Centralized software is a must-have for managers overseeing dozens of vehicles simultaneously. Basic systems can’t provide a bird’s eye view of Wi-Fi operation. Nor can they provide real-time information on the GPS location of each vehicle.

Beyond these technical considerations, transit agencies could consider the following financial concern: Without centralized Wi-Fi system coordination, there’s no way to deliver advertisements to riders. Devicescape has found the majority — 68% — of passengers are willing to watch ads in exchange for complimentary Wi-Fi access. Advertising can partially or totally offset transit agencies’ Wi-Fi costs. Higher-end solutions come complete with built-in, advertisement-based revenue systems.

Stay tuned for our next post, on the sophisticated capabilities of advanced train and bus Wi-Fi systems.

Rob Taylo is founder/CEO of SinglePoint Communications, an exclusive U.S. distributor of Wi-Fi in Motion — a rugged suite of products designed to offer high-speed wireless Internet on public transit and private charter vehicles.

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "Why curb-to-curb service is simply not enough."

Rob Taylo

Founder/CEO SinglePoint Communications


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  • Ron[ February 20th, 2014 @ 5:27pm ]

    In cities like Seattle, there are so many free Wi-Fi establishments and areas, the addition of Wi-Fi on bus/rail almost assures connection. Time for all SoCal (not just the downtown folks) buses and rail lines to wake up to 2014.

  • William Texidor[ March 3rd, 2014 @ 1:35pm ]

    Ron the core business of Transit is to move a passenger from point A to point B. Wi-Fi integration even though might sound appetizing to the public at large, you still have to ask the basic question “How many passengers that are in transit are actually using the internet.” I think you will find that very few do. However, don’t misunderstand my statement Wi-Fi does have a function on Mass Transit but as telemetry vehicle for onboard devices like system health check and video transmission.

  • Mitch Skyer[ May 15th, 2014 @ 12:39pm ]

    Ron - I really liked the clarity you used in presenting the differences between cost and quality for Wi-Fi on transit. We've seen similar challenges when a customer does not select the option that will meet their objectives. We've seen closed loop systems where riders often experience trips exceeding 20 minutes have a lot of success with Wi-Fi offerings. The passengers enjoy the added perk.

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Author Bio

Heather Redfern

Public Information Manager, SEPTA


Marcia Ferranto

President/CEO, WTS International

Marcia Ferranto is President/CEO of WTS International.


Scott Belcher

President and CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America)


Joe Zavisca

Joe Zavisca is an independent consultant specializing in paratransit service.


Paul Mackie

Communications Director, Mobility Lab

Paul Mackie is communications director at Mobility Lab, a leading U.S. voice of “transportation demand management.”


Rob Taylo

Founder/CEO SinglePoint Communications

Rob Taylo is founder/CEO of SinglePoint Communications, an exclusive U.S. distributor of WiFi in Motion.


Joel Volinski

Director, National Center for Transit Research at CUTR/USF


Brian Antolin

Consultant, Transportation and Travel Industry


Zack Shubkagel

Partner/Creative Director of Willoughby Design

Zack Shubkagel is partner and creative director for the San Francisco office of Willoughby Design, a strategic branding and design firm.


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