Management & Operations

What to Consider Before Equipping Your System With Wi-Fi

Posted on February 15, 2007 by Alex Roman, Associate Editor

When it comes to luring prospective customers out of their cars, more and more agencies are taking the Wi-Fi route — equipping their vehicles to enable passengers to wirelessly access the Internet.

A typical Wi-Fi system for commuter transit vehicles consists of a rugged mobile router unit, an external antenna for the roof of the vehicle and an internal antenna for the passenger compartment, explains Andrew Hunt, director of transportation programs for Parvus, whose RiderNet Internet access solution was specifically designed for mass transportation agencies and motorcoach operators. The Wi-Fi system then connects users with laptops to a cellular or satellite wireless system through the external antenna. The internal antenna broadcasts the divided signal to the users, and access is usually obtained through a Web browser by clicking on a “splash page” hosted by the mobile router unit.

Agencies hope that giving passengers the ability to access the Internet — something they can’t yet do in their own vehicles — will help boost ridership.

This newest passenger amenity is currently being tested by agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada in the form of pilot projects intended to determine customer interest and both logistical and financial feasibility.

“It is a trend, because it is something that a lot of business travelers want to see on a public transit vehicle,” Hunt says.

While providing passengers with Wi-Fi service could possibly help grow ridership, there are a variety of reasons why it might not be for everybody. We spoke to several agencies to find out what important factors should be addressed before installing wireless Internet access solutions on your vehicles.

Focus your demographic
The first order of business is to figure out what part of your passenger demographic would be interested in having Internet service available to them and what segment of potential customers would want to leave their cars behind to take advantage of mobile access to the Internet.

Oakland, Calif.-based AC Transit equipped about 80 MCI coaches from its TransBay fleet with Wi-Fi service. The fleet carries AC’s ideal demographic from Oakland’s Alameda and Contra Costa counties across three bridges, the Bay into San Francisco, the San Mateo, where companies such as Oracle and Visa are located, and the Dumbarton to Stanford University.

“It doesn’t make much sense for us to provide this service on our rapid buses, which are short-term, urban-type routes,” says Jon Twichell, AC’s transportation planning manager. “We were looking for more the white-collar crowd that is apt to be going to a central area of employment.”

Finding the ideal demographic may be a no-brainer. So-called “choice” riders, who commute 20 to 30 minutes or longer to and from their jobs, would probably be the most interested in the service since it provides them the opportunity to begin their work day by accessing e-mail, visiting pertinent Websites or connecting to their company’s virtual private network.

Like AC Transit, Seattle’s King County Metro Transit also has a built-in set of choice-rider routes that service the University of Washington and Microsoft. Just to be sure, Larry Calter, IT manager for King County, says the agency tested Wi-Fi service on both long and short routes.

“We kind of assumed commuter routes would be a good place where people would want to use it,” Calter says, “But we also chose some local routes to see what our numbers would tell us.”

Feasibility of installation
A wireless Internet access solution may not be feasible for everyone. With the proliferation of cell phones in our everyday lives, signal strength has increased quite a bit, making it easier for new wireless products to hit the market. However, not all network coverage is created equal.

“You need to do coverage tests before you go into the pilot to make sure that you don’t use a provider that has a lot of dead spots along your route,” says Kyle Brimley, technology deployment project manager for the Utah Transit Authority (UTA).

Agencies that are located in metropolitan, technologically progressive or college areas will find it easier to equip their vehicles with Wi-Fi solutions, because chances are higher that the needed infrastructure is already in place. Areas without a strong network may need to get realistic with themselves before installing an Internet solution on their vehicles, since improper coverage will lead to dead spots, and, in turn, passenger frustration with the service.

There are alternatives for areas without great coverage; however, Parvus’ Hunt says that the costs make the installation of the service much less attractive.

On the other hand, agencies, such as AC Transit, Capital Metro Transit in Austin, Texas, and King County, have benefited from the enhanced coverage in their respective regions.

“Austin is considered one of the top wired cities in the nation — we have been dubbed the Silicon Hills as opposed to the Silicon Valley — and so there’s a lot of expectation for this kind of amenity in our city,” explains Denise Du Charme, chief information officer for Capital Metro.

Capital Metro, like the UTA, also tested the network coverage of several providers to see what would work best for the system before deciding which to use. Du Charme adds that just because it chose one provider to cover a certain area does not necessarily mean that the agency would use that same provider for future installations on other routes.

Costs and funding
One of the most important considerations on any project is figuring what the costs will be and where the funding will come from.

The cost for transit vehicle Wi-Fi at this point is relatively cheap, averaging somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000 per bus to install, as well as a monthly access card fee of around $50 to $60.

Many of the agencies we spoke with that have equipped their vehicles with Wi-Fi are dipping into existing local, discretionary or IT funds, but there are also other options available, such as clean air grants.

Virginia’s Blacksburg Transit (BT) funded its Wi-Fi services by obtaining open grant money available to it for the purchase of seven buses and forming a public-private partnership with a local business.

“We approached Citizens Inc., a local phone co-op, and discussed the possibility of them helping us set up wireless mobile hot spots on those buses,” explains Tim Witten, BT’s special projects manager. “So we added the equipment and then purchased their services for two years.”

Witten says that the time was right to try such a program since Citizens was in the process of creating a mobile broadband Internet solution for the area.

The monthly fee per bus is another cost associated with Wi-Fi. How does an agency work that cost into its ever-tightening budget?

AC Transit hopes that an aggressive marketing campaign will help increase ridership and in turn help absorb its $60 monthly fee. “It’s $116 for a monthly TransBay service pass,” says AC Transit’s Twichell. “If we can just add one new rider per bus every month, the system is returned greatly on its investment and it ends up turning a profit for us.”

Service that fits
In addition to offering a good price point, it is also important to partner with a service provider that understands the needs of transit agencies compared to other industries, says Witten.

In fact, some transit agencies have chosen companies that create Wi-Fi products for trade show or coffee house environments and have become discouraged when the solution fails.

Capital Metro did extensive research before choosing its provider, including putting out an expression of interest, assessing those responses and speaking with North American agencies that were already using various Wi-Fi products.

Taking the time to find a suitable partner ensures that the Wi-Fi solution you choose will be rugged and durable enough for the transit environment, and in the long run, will help put your mind at ease when troubleshooting or maintenance is necessary.

Have reasonable expectations
The truth about Wi-Fi is that, in the long run, it will probably be more of a passenger amenity than a cash cow, so having realistic expectations is important. “Some agencies think that it’s like a magic bullet or something, but it’s not,” says Parvus’ Hunt. “It’s really just one more factor that, if used correctly, can work to help improve your service and increase ridership a few points.”

Despite the fact that service providers offer various pay models, many feel that it would be counterproductive to actually charge customers to use the service.

“The amount we would charge would be so minimal that it would defeat the purpose of enhancing the ridership experience,” says UTA’s Brimley. “You have to remember that you are using the same technology that any consumer could use 24 hours a day if they went and purchased an access card and paid the fees themselves.”

Most of the agencies we interviewed agree that, because the reasons for ridership growth or decline vary, it will be difficult to assess if ridership is really growing because they installed Wi-Fi. “We will maybe be able to show some type of a correlation, but to show that Wi-Fi itself is the actual variable will be difficult,” says Calter.

An aggressive marketing campaign will help get the word out so that potential passengers within your desired demographic know that the service is now available.

AC Transit’s Twichell says that his agency is working on a way to offer prospective riders opportunities, such as riding the service free for a week and offering laptops with Wi-Fi capability at a discounted rate. The agency is also planning on putting up banners around the area where Wi-Fi is available, as well as on Internet sites like Yahoo! and Google.

Branding the vehicles that have Wi-Fi installed also helps prospective riders become aware of the service and helps current riders know that they are boarding a vehicle with Internet capabilities.

Additionally, asking passengers to take a survey when they are at the splash page is one way to see if they are satisfied with the way the service is working and if they have recently decided to start riding your vehicles because you installed Wi-Fi.

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