Is In-Vehicle Wi-Fi a Boon For Commuters?

Is In-Vehicle Wi-Fi a Boon For Commuters?

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Daniel Casciato

April 09, 2008

Public transportation companies worldwide are hoping to improve the safety and efficiency of their operations–and their ridership–by integrating wireless solutions on their trains and buses.

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Laura Jones has a daily 45-minute commute aboard a King County Metro Transit (KCMT) bus to and from work. For this account coordinator at Lewis PR in Seattle, that’s 90 minutes of lost productivity. So, you’ll often find Jones with her MacBook flipped open, checking e-mail, surfing the Web, or doing something work-related, thanks to KCMT’s free Wi-Fi access.

“45 minutes is a long time back and forth,” Jones said. “So, any of that time I can use to do something productive is always worth it.”

Why Wi-Fi?

By deploying a wireless infrastructure, public transportation companies, like King Metro, are offering free Wi-Fi access for riders—an amenity that could help boost ridership.

“Rail and bus companies are using Wi-Fi to entice more passengers to use their service,” said Esme Vos, an intellectual property lawyer based in Amsterdam and founder of

The one disadvantage to broadband technology on public transit vehicles is that the backhaul can be limited.

“You have to send all of this traffic at the end of the day to the Internet,” explained Vos.”We all know that 3G has limited bandwidth, which means when you set up Wi-Fi access on a bus, you can only give people so much bandwidth.”

However, Vos added that most riders are not engaged in heavy uploading or downloading.

“Most people don’t do massive file transfers,” she said. “They do either e-mail or a little Web surfing—applications that don’t require much bandwidth. But I do see that improving. European operators are rolling out what they call 4G—but what is really 3.5 G. As they become more efficient in managing the data traffic providing more bandwidth, file transferring will improve as well.”

In addition to enhancing the commuter experience, Vos says that Wi-Fi is helping transit operators improve safety and efficiency, by using widespread video surveillance and sophisticated maintenance and diagnostic tracking.

“Streaming surveillance video from wireless cameras on buses to public safety authorities has been very successful for bus operators,” she said.

Jim Baker agrees.

“While offering free Wi-Fi connectivity to passengers is a value-added service that is going to distinguish a public transit operator from its competition, that’s not the main selling point for the operators,” said Baker, CEO of UK-based Moovera Networks, whose company makes gateway devices that deliver broadband connectivity to public transport companies worldwide. “The primary driver is not Wi-Fi for passengers, but Internet connectivity for the vehicle.”

Baker says that there are three reasons why public transportation companies want Internet connectivity in the vehicles.

“One is passenger Wi-Fi, so they can deliver a service to the passengers that sets them apart from its competition,” he said. “Transport operators’ key focus in life is to get backsides on seats, no matter how they do it.”

The second driver is delivering a vehicle area network (VAN) to allow connectivity between all of the vehicle’s devices and applications.

“For example, the vehicle may have a telematics system, which measures the speed that the driver is going, fuel conditions, braking conditions, and the pitch of the vehicle as it moves,” Baker said. “That information is stored locally on a disk-based device in the vehicle. Our gateway allows that telematic information to be accessed remotely so that vehicle operators can have a complete overview of their fleets in real-time as their vehicles move around all over the place.”

The final, and often significant, driver that convinces operators to deploy a wireless system is to enhance vehicle security. Although most buses now have security cameras on board, the problem that operators have is that the video footage can only be uploaded after the vehicle has gone back to the depot or station.

“What our gateway permits, is for IP-based DVR or CCTV systems to be accessed in real-time,” said Baker.  “Someone can be sitting at headquarters and receive a message from the driver about a problem on board. That person can then instantly log in and see what’s going on.”

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

That’s precisely why the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in Boston— the fifth busiest transit system in the U.S., transporting nearly 1.2 million passengers daily—decided to integrate a wireless surveillance system on its buses last year.

Soon after the fatal gang-related shooting of an 18-year-old on one of its buses, MBTA deployed a wireless mesh network (from Firetide) to provide mobile remote viewing from the cameras installed on its buses. The wireless solution enables transmission of live video feeds to laptops in MBTA police officers’ networked vehicles, allowing first responders to view an onboard incident as it unfolds, in real time.

“Responders can now plan and execute tactics faster and smarter— enhancing the safety and security of passengers, officers, and transit personnel alike,” explained Michael Dillon,Firetide’s vice president of business development for global municipal & public safety markets.

Los Gatos, California-based Firetide provides mesh networks that enable concurrent video, voice, and data for municipal, public safety, and enterprise applications.

“Our HotPort mesh nodes and HotPoint access points provide a reliable high performance wireless infrastructure and access solution for video surveillance, Internet access, public safety networks, and temporary networks wherever rapid deployment, mobility, and ease of installation are required,” said Dillon.

The $1.4 million system, partially funded by a Department of Homeland Security grant, now provides on-board surveillance on 155 of its buses.

Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority

The Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) in Tennessee also received a federal grant for the deployment of wireless technology for its Smartbus program. Wi-Fi connectivity now serves all 75+ buses in the metropolitan fleet. Included in this are 15 battery-powered electric buses, an innovation CARTA launched in 1992. Both innovations are recognized widely national “firsts,” according to Jim Frierson, executive director of the Advanced Transportation Technology Institute in Chattanooga. 

“The culture of this city is to do some things that are really outside the box,” he said.”We have been an innovative city with an innovative transit. If you want to introduce new technologies, transit is the place to do it.”

Frierson calls Wi-Fi access to the passengers “the frosting on the cake.”

“The cake is better real-time monitoring of the fleet,” he explained. “The equipment installed allows riders to access the Internet on the back of this investment that CARTA made. CARTA collaborated with Sprint/Nextel using EVDO technology to monitor where the buses were via a global positioning system. The same technology also offers a real-time location service so people can access on their phone where the bus is at any moment.”

The CARTA Smartbus program also features an automatic vehicle monitoring system to track in real-time the performance of engines and transmissions. It includes automatic passenger counting, audio, and electronic displays of next bus stops to aid visually and hearing-impaired riders, real-time passenger boarding information, computerized trip planning for riders and real-time bus information at key stops.

Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada

Like MBTA and CARTA, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) leveraged a $500,000 Department of Homeland Security grant to purchase a wireless broadband system as part of their plan to provide safe, convenient, and effective regional transportation in Las Vegas. In close coordination with local public safety agencies, RTC will deploy a Motorola mesh network solution for mobile wireless video surveillance.

“The RTC decided with input from its transit department and security department to further enhance safety and security to our ridership around the Strip and place cameras around various locations,” said Rick Moore, RTC’s director of IT. “We chose Motorola because we found that they were the only company that had the 4.9 GHz frequency, the FCC-licensed frequency range reserved for public safety agencies.”

Motorola’s mesh network will enable video surveillance to and from moving buses to increase the safety of over 64 million riders traveling along the Las Vegas strip each year. The new video system, which will be fully implemented by May, will also enhance security at transit shelters in highly congested areas. Video surveillance cameras will send real-time, streaming video over mesh wireless routers and access points to RTC’s security personnel and Metro Police to remotely monitor IP video surveillance cameras at bus stops and on city buses, even while in motion at highway speeds.

Montreal Transit Authority

The Montreal Transit Authority (AMT) also turned to Motorola for its wireless solution. In November, AMT selected Motorola’s radio frequency identification (RFID) solution to track its bus fleet and help increase the use of its transit system. AMT deployed Motorola RFID readers, tags, and antennas, as well as wireless LAN (WLAN) access points and client bridges.

“What we’re seeing is a really rapid innovation around wireless technologies right now,” said Jerry McNerney, senior director of Motorola Enterprise Mobility Business. “AMT wanted to start to automate some of their current investments. They looked at our RFID technology to see how they can improve customer service.”

McNerney explained that the integration of both RFID and WLAN offers AMT’s passengers real-time arrival and departure information, reducing passenger confusion and making travel more convenient and comfortable even in inclement weather.

“The RFID and WLAN system provides us with information in real-time,” said Claude Carette, vice president of Metropolitan Operations for AMT. “Immediate access to bus location enhances decision-making, improves the management of routes, all of which support AMT’s critical mission to increase the use of public transit systems in the Montreal area.”

Storstockholms Lokaltrafik

Wireless broadband technology, whether it’s used to enhance commuter experience, or safety and security, aboard public transit vehicles, is nothing new for Nigel Wallbridge, executive Chairman and founder of the UK-based Nomad Digital.

Nomad Digital is responsible for the first wireless broadband service onboard a train system (the Brighton Express from London to Brighton in 2005); the longest in-tunnel service (the Heathrow Xpress from London to Heathrow Airport in 2007); and the longest WiMAX roll-out (on the UK’s West Coast mainline, Virgin Trains, 373 miles and growing).

“What we did is provide a brilliant broadband network to a public transportation system,” he said. “Wi-Fi has been an important driver in getting people interested in these networks. The operators are interested in using the network to provide better security, such as using remote CCTVs to keep an eye on what’s going in, communication with staff, monitoring of equipment, and just knowing where their vehicles are.”

In February, Nomad Digital began to deploy a WiMAX network to allow bus passengers in Stockholm, Sweden to get free broadband Wi-Fi access. Passengers on the one-hour Stockholm to Norrtalje route 676 commuter bus will try out the access as part of a pilot project to test the feasibility of broadband access and applications—such as real-time news video—for the Swedish capitol’s public transport authority, Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL).

“The feedback so far has been excellent,” said Wallbridge. “There is a strong feeling there that Wi-Fi is making public transport more attractive.”

Not all commuters are convinced. Rich Young a director at Lewis PR in Boston, and blogger of The Whole Nine Yards is a daily riderof the MBTA’s Worcester/Framingham commuter rail line where Wi-Fi was recently introduced.

“I have used its Wi-Fi from time to time, specifically for e-mail management, so I’m not totally contrarian to it,” said Young. “But I would rather see them commit to having the trains run on time rather than giving me wireless. They’ve been under serious fire lately due to some performance issues they have had as a result of a new operator of the line, so I think they added this purely as a PR ploy.” 

Instead, Young would prefer to see Wi-Fi in the train stations.

“If the train is late, I would rather log in and finish up my e-mail there than on the train itself,” he said. But he acknowledged that Wi-Fi aboard public transit is here to stay.

“We’ll get to a point where we will expect free wireless at any public place we go,” he said. “But aboard a train, I think the coolness factor will wear off.  I think people just like to sit on the train, zone out, finish reading a magazine or newspaper, or listen to their iPods rather than do more work.”

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