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."
Seeing a canine passenger on mass transit is not uncommon, but the reasons why a dog might catch the train or hop a bus are varied (remember Eclipse, the Seattle Lab mix that uses the bus, often on her own, to get to the dog park?). Most public transit pooches are working —as K-9 officers or service animals. In the Philadelphia region, other animals — in approved carriers only—are permitted to ride the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s buses, trains and trolleys. However, a new pilot program underway by SEPTA allows registered therapy dogs volunteering at two Philadelphia hospitals to use two designated bus routes to travel to their sites.
To be sure, there is no substitute for offering high-quality bus or rail transit service, but many transit agencies skimp when it comes to marketing, outreach, and education and, as a result, the public often has no idea how good the service may actually be. Buses also have an image problem in many communities, which proper marketing could help address. Witness the huge sums spent by automakers in crafting the image of their automobiles.
The Uber website proudly states that, “Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 200 cities today, Uber's rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.” Such hype is common on corporate websites, but when the braggadocio is backed up by an article in the Wall Street Journal that discloses a valuation of $41 billion their ambitious words take on relevance.
As the world changes with the rapid advancement of connected devices and technologies, so must the transportation industry. In a business area where change is sluggish, DOTs across the country must adapt quickly to the evolving technologies that are going to impact their operations and budget. There are at least three technologies that will have immense impact over the next two decades on how we travel and how state transportation departments react to provide mobility — connectedness, big data and automation.
Around the world, artwork of all forms adorns transportation centers, stations and bus shelters. While many of these statues, paintings, mosaics and sculptures are permanently installed as part of a station’s architecture, transportation organizations can use their spaces for art exhibitions that not only make transit hubs more aesthetically pleasing for commuters, but also inspire budding artists. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) recently partnered with two organizations to showcase the artistic talent of youth from the Greater Philadelphia region and around the world.