What Makes the Wi-Fi Bus Successful?

While innovations in transit wireless are often the preserve of larger metropolitan agencies, smaller regional operators are keeping pace with technological change and ensuring their services meet passenger demands. They are also not afraid of using lower cost equipment that meets their needs while keeping capital expenditure and ongoing operating costs low.

This week the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) in Vermont announced free Wi-Fi services aboard a portion of its bus fleet; CCTA operates 19 bus routes between cities and towns on the east shore of Lake Champlain, including the Burlington suburbs of Essex Junction and Winookski. Wi-Fi has been deployed on the LINK Express commuter vehicles that service the longer routes to neighboring county towns, including Middlebury, Montpelier and St. Albans. The authority carries around 2.5 million passengers annually, with approximately 117,000 people using the LINK Express service.

BUS PHOTO


According to Ross Nizlek, operations technology specialist at CCTA, the key driver behind the roll out of free passenger Wi-Fi was demand from the customer base. “Having Wi-Fi on the LINK buses has been a frequent suggestion made by passengers, so we knew that the desire to have the service was there,” said Nizlek in an interview with Unwired. “We envisioned that Wi-Fi could act as a strong marketing tool to bring additional riders on board and it was a substantial improvement that we could make to the service for a minimal investment. Wi-Fi allows our customers to turn their commuting time into productive time and dramatically narrows of the gap between the convenience of driving versus taking transit to work.”

ROUTER PHOTO

Nizlek estimates the deployment to be costing less than $300 per vehicle for equipment, with an ongoing monthly cost of $42 for cellular service. “Ongoing costs would be more than covered if the presence of Wi-Fi brought just a single additional rider each day, which we felt was a very achievable goal.” This is significantly less than the $1,000-2,000 other bus operators have spent per vehicle in the past, and reflects the appearance of cheaper business-class mobile cellular routers that while not technically being industrial grade, are sufficiently fit for purposes in a bus environment. CCTA has chosen the MBR1000 cellular router from vendor Cradlepoint that combines an enterprise-class Wi-Fi 802.11n access point with cellular backhaul using a single plug-and-play USB dongle (see photograph). Wireless service is provided by Verizon, which is currently 3G EV-DO in the Burlington area, and delivers up to 1.5Mbps to the bus. When the bus has a reasonable passenger load, speeds experienced are typically half that, according to Nizlek. The router is self-contained and wall-mounted behind the driver’s compartment, powered from the bus’s 12v DC supply. CCTA has installed the equipment on the Express buses themselves.

According to CradlePoint CTO Gary Oliverio, the company is seeing an increasing number of mass transit agencies using its cellular routers for passenger Wi-Fi hotspots. “As the CCTA has discovered, our units are compact and entirely suitable for serving a typical bus complement; the bottleneck has always been in the cellular connection, so by enabling the latest technologies such as WiMAX from Sprint and LTE from Verizon and AT&T, CradlePoint has driven this sea-change for transit applications.”

CCTA has equipped an initial nine buses with free Wi-Fi hotspots, with a further four due for upgrade during 2011. “We don’t envision deployment of the system across our local fleet of 48 buses,” continued Nizlek. “The average trip length and time on board is short enough that Wi-Fi would not be of tremendous use and the costs would be unlikely to be fully covered by increased farebox receipts.” A typical one-way trip on the longer LINK Express routes is between 60 and 90 minutes. Taking into account intermediate stops, the average journey length is closer to 45 to 50 minutes. Metrics gathered from other mass transit Wi-Fi projects around the world suggest that a commute journey of 15 minutes or more is of sufficient length for passengers to consider connecting to a hotspot if available. This is due in part to the compact nature of today’s Wi-Fi-enabled devices (such as the iPhone) and the ease with which they can seamlessly connect to a free Wi-Fi network.

Capital cost and operating expense is one of the major hurdles to Wi-Fi deployment, according to many transit agencies. A monthly pass on CCTA’s Express service is $125, supporting Nizlek’s claim that a relatively insignificant increase in ridership would cover OPEX and the amortized equipment CAPEX. Even with other costs, such as installation factored in, the CCTA Wi-Fi scheme could in the longer term generate revenue for the operator. As a result, CCTA does not feel it necessary to sell advertising space within the Wi-Fi hotspot to help underwrite the cost of the service. The key is to reduce the initial capital cost by choosing lower-priced equipment, and to ensure that a 3G cellular subscription started today can be migrated to a 4G service tomorrow. Passengers will tolerate a Wi-Fi hotspot that is about as fast as they can achieve with their own mobile broadband connection, but not one that is significantly slower or highly contended.

On the face of it, CCTA has managed to design a project that meets many of the goals larger agencies are struggling with, often due to capital costs running several times greater per bus. Since the CCTA Wi-Fi service is only being launched in the first week of December, it’s too early to say what the uptake will be among passengers, and whether the authority will achieve its target of one additional passenger per day. CCTA has other plans for technological upgrades in 2011, including a GPS-based vehicle location (AVL) and passenger information system (PIS) for which an RFP is currently being prepared. Fundamentally, the purpose behind these innovations is to persuade people to choose mass transit for their travel needs. “Public transportation plays a significant role in finding solutions to the numerous mobility, energy and environmental challenges facing America today,” says Chris Cole, CCTA general manager. “By providing Wi-Fi to our LINK riders, we are increasing the convenience of our service and making these commuter routes even more competitive with the auto.” Good job too.

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Jim Baker is CEO at Xentrans Inc., a wireless project management consultancy based in San Francisco and London. A C-level wireless industry veteran, Baker has been involved in many deployments of wireless technologies on passenger transportation worldwide and is a recognized industry expert on Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G convergence. He is chair of the Technology Committee at the Joint Council on Transit Wireless Communications which is developing a strategic plan for implementation of wireless technologies in mass transit. Contact Baker via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

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