Wi-Fi on Buses and Trains: Better Service Ahead

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In an era where Wi-Fi services are cropping up almost everywhere (you can now get Wi-Fi with your fries or while you're picking up lumber), it's still not so easy to get Wi-Fi while on the go, especially on public transit in most of America's major cities.

With a few exceptions, such as Boston's transit-wide services, most commuters in major U.S. cities must find Internet access on their own, typically through a personal cellular device (a phone with tethering or a mobile hotspot). The lack of Wi-Fi services on buses and trains across the nation is due mainly to two factors: The technology isn’t quite there yet, and the costs are too high.

But good news might just around the next bend. Wireless services are benefiting from innovation that can dramatically cut costs—or even eliminate costs—to transit providers, while also dramatically improving wireless connection speeds. New business models, where advertisers pay so they can broadcast marketing messages to customers using the wireless service, are already behind new transit services like the combined Wi-Fi and cellular system recently installed in some New York City subway stations.

And new technology, specifically the so-called "4G" wireless networks being deployed by cellular carriers, can support wireless bandwidth services that are as much as ten times faster than previous networks. That advancement means a lot more mobile bandwidth that transit operators can take advantage of, both to improve services and to reduce costs. In Silicon Valley, the light rail service that runs from Mountain View to San Jose uses 4G cellular to provide Wi-Fi service to all its trains—perhaps an appropriate feature for a train line that runs right through the heart of America's biggest concentration of technology companies.

The idea of making wireless Internet access available on commuter systems is obviously appealing to many, bringing better communication and the possibility of work productivity to what was historically regarded as time when you couldn't do much more than read the paper. Like putting Wi-Fi into libraries and schools, adding Internet access to transportation seemed like the next step in civic services, with many cities and municipalities announcing project plans during the past decade.

Roadblocks in the Way

But as it turns out, putting Internet access into moving vehicles has presented more than its share of speed bumps. Chief among them is the real problem of trying to provide solid Internet connectivity to vehicles moving at high speeds, sometimes 60 mph or faster. Technically, such connectivity is achieved via a cellular connection to a mobile router. This works just like the personal Wi-Fi hotspots that have a cell modem on one end bringing a signal in, and a Wi-Fi connection on the other to link to local devices. For a bus or a train, the router is usually ruggedized and adapted to run off the vehicle's power system.

The good intentions of transport Wi-Fi projects, however, typically met one of two potential, and significant, stop signs: the inability of the technology to satisfy user needs, or the ongoing costs. Until a couple of years ago, mobile cellular products could use only the "3G" cellular networks, which were not originally built with data connections in mind. While a 3G connection might satisfy a single user, a bus or train car full of iPhone and laptop users could easily overwhelm any mobile router's capacity, especially when that router was moving in and out of cell zones.

In places like Seattle and on Caltrain in the San Francisco Peninsula, early experiments with Wi-Fi services were abandoned when they couldn't provide services that stood up to user demand. Though San Francisco’s BART light rail started a limited rollout of Wi-Fi services, its implementation has stalled because of poor performance.

And while Amtrak still advertises Wi-Fi service on many of its lines, the quality or reliabilty of access is regularly panned, with even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman moaning about Amtrak's poor Wi-Fi service on its East Coast lines.

Though it's not terribly expensive to outfit buses and trains with Wi-Fi gear, the economic pressures of the recent past have forced many municipalities and their transport divisions to cut budgets and services, a reality that often left funding for Wi-Fi on the side as a luxury that wasn't a priority.

Being an Enabler

Some commuters connect themselves using mobile hotspots.
Some commuters connect themselves using mobile hotspots.
Though they might not be providing Internet services themselves, many transport systems started doing what they could to help commuters who used their own cellular contracts for connectivity, with steps such as adding more power plugs near seats and working with cellular providers to bring antennas to places like underground tunnels.

4G Will Help

The good news is that recent advances in technology and some new thinking in business models appear to be spurring a renaissance in transit Wi-Fi, especially in buses. The nationwide rollout of 4G LTE services from the biggest cellular service providers—a list that includes Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, and Sprint Nextel—means that cellular modems can now theoretically connect at much higher speeds and with much wider bandwidth than previous versions, making mobile Wi-Fi a better possibility. That buses are getting connected before trains is also probably a factor of the advanced cellular rollout, since buses travel more slowly and are more likely to be in areas (city streets and urban highways) where cell coverage is good.

A quick Internet search reveals free transit Wi-Fi on bus systems in a number of locales across the nation, including the San Francisco Bay Area's Golden Gate and AC Transit systems, as well as services in Miami; Durham, North Carolina; Utah; and near Kansas City. A number of private commuter buses also advertise free Wi-Fi as one of their top amenities, a key factor for folks who take longer commutes such as people commuting between major East Coast cities or, on the West Coast, between cities like Seattle and Portland. Old standby Greyhound is even on board the Wi-Fi movement, with Wi-Fi services on its new "Greyhound Express" routes in places like Chicago, Texas, and California.

"We definitely see a benefit from using 4G, because the pipe is just that much larger," said Rob Taylo, CEO of SinglePoint Communications, the vendor who has helped bring Wi-Fi services to Silicon Valley's Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) and Greyhound, among other customers. According to Taylo, the new generation of Wi-Fi routers can support from two to six separate cellular connections, a big jump in bandwidth from the early days, when mobile routers might have had only a single cellular antenna.

Advertising Models

On the business side, also, a renewed interest in the idea of having services paid for by sponsors who want to advertise to the captive online audience seems to be occurring. In New York City, a service offering cellular and Wi-Fi access to subway stations was made free via a sponsorship from Google Offers. Though that deal ends soon, the model is open to attracting new sponsors. Similar efforts elsewhere are helping to fund Wi-Fi on buses, and in Silicon Valley, the local light rail service's 4G-powered Wi-Fi is paid for both from advertising and by tech companies that sign up as direct sponsors so that their employees and other transport users can stay connected while traveling.

Wi-Fi on transit is sometimes paid for by advertisers who want to reach the Wi-Fi users.
That Wi-Fi aboard transit is still a popular idea is confirmed by statistics like those from Boston's MBTA, where 10,000 riders connect to the system daily, and from the Santa Clara VTA. Based on its latest figures, the VTA says that 15,989 of its riders used the free Wi-Fi service this past July, accessing the system 75,510 separate times, with an average online time of 24 minutes and 58 seconds, and with average downloads of 13.2 megabytes of data. The VTA system, which SinglePoint's Taylo said is the first 4G transit operation, uses the Clearwire WiMAX network as its 4G connection.

With new ways to pay for the services and better ways to make it happen, it is possible that more transit Wi-Fi services could start appearing, just in time to meet what will likely be a growing demand for Internet access from commuters with mobile devices. Let us know in the comments below if your commute has Wi-Fi access, and if so, how the service is performing.

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