Bus Wi-Fi system considerations for transit agencies

Posted on February 13, 2014 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.

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

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