A growing number of transit companies are touting wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) connections onboard for the use of their riders — but this technology has the potential to do more than attract Internet-addicted passengers.
Once transit IT planners start down the Wi-Fi road, they find a number of uses: security cameras, fare collection and real-time information signs, on-board systems like ridership counts, stop announcements, routes/schedules, system configurations/patches and vehicle diagnostics all can be implemented with Wi-Fi technologies.
The King County Department of Transportation in Seattle, Wash., for example, has an extensive 802.11g Wi-Fi plan that will eventually include smart card, on-board systems, real-time information signs and signal priority.
Designing systems that can incorporate rider Wi-Fi usage, as well as transit-to-office (and back) information transfer, and auxiliary services like security can be complex to say the least. But the payoff can be huge, and, some experts say, Wi-Fi technology in transit is inevitable.
Wi-Fi is wire-free, but not entirely knot-free. Unraveling the myriad of co-existing technological and business needs can be tricky.
“Technically, the challenge is to get three different vendors to have their equipment interoperate,” says Wayne Watanabe, King County Department of Transportation’s IT service delivery manager.
King County uses ERG’s smart card. ERG’s driver display unit needs to work with the on-board Motorola radio system. Radios and fare equipment must work with the on-board central processing unit (ERG) and all the systems must work with the on-board wireless Cisco bridge (which is part of the smart card project).
But bleeding-edge technology isn’t the only thing to be mastered in implementing a Wi-Fi system.
“The biggest challenge with the smart card has been the complexity of determining business procedures, fare rules, etc., that will work for all seven different agencies who are partners on this project,” says Watanabe. “Managing this many partners is daunting.”
Scheduling can also be a headache. Integrating multiple Wi-Fi uses into one system makes sense from a ROI standpoint; once you’ve made the investment, it’s shortsighted not to leverage as many improvements and efficiencies that the technology makes possible.
But doing so creates its own manpower and training issues; an IT staff can only stretch so far, and training transit staff for one or two new procedures is one thing — seven or eight is overwhelming to even the most technologically savvy.
Watanabe is planning to roll out smart card in December 2008, on-board systems in late 2009, real-time information signs in 2010 and an expansion of the signal priority system already in place in 2010.
“We also will be replacing our 450 MHz radio system with a 700 MHz system — hopefully around 2010 or 2011,” he says.
Rolling out ambitious, multifaceted Wi-Fi plans over a period of time gives you the added benefit of being able to incorporate upgrades in the technology as you go along — along with the headaches of, well, incorporating upgrades in the technology as you go along (in effect, shooting for a true aim at an ever-changing target).
Upcoming 802.11 Standards
Wi-Fi is a wireless local area network (WLAN) that is designed so that one access point or signal antennae can, under current specifications (the IEEE 802.11g), provide signal to an area about the size of a football field. Enterprises get around this limitation by simply providing multiple access points.
But the 802.11n standard, which should roll sometime in the middle of this year, should double that signal area and increase the speed by five times over the current specifications. Access points themselves are relatively inexpensive; but if you are planning for the long term, you need to plan for the possibility that access point placement options may also change.