“This type of multipurpose use is an innovation in the transit industry,” adds Hunt. “I think of it as a Rubik’s cube of sorts that is adapted to the business rules of each unique customer. In the case of UTA, we use some fancy RF equipment to divide the wireless signals inside the bus so we only need a single roof antenna.”
According to Kololli, one of the reasons that UTA has been able to work so well with vendors is that it doesn’t have to.
“Our GM, John Inglish, is very innovative and at the forefront of technology, and we have a really smart technical staff. We give them a lot of latitude and resources,” he says. What that translates to is an IT staff that has the expertise and the latitude to build applications in-house.
“We are the creator of our applications, so we have more flexibility, and of course, it is easier for us to integrate those applications” says Kololli.
Kyle Brimley, UTA’s technology deployment project manager, points out: “We deliver a lot of very cost-effective projects in house.”
Kololli agrees. “We try to compare apples to apples. We won’t reinvent the wheel, unless we can do it more cost-effectively than an off-the-shelf solution, but we’re not restricted to off-the shelf solutions that may not work exactly how we want. And we’re not in a position of trying to convince several vendors to make their products interoperate.”
“We’ve worked with several vendors who have been willing to play in our sandbox, because they know we have the expertise and the infrastructure to make it work,” says Brimley.
One of the cruxes of UTA’s planned Wi-Fi system is brilliantly simple in theory, but slightly more difficult to put into practice: Wi-Fi access is available for passengers during their ride, but is diverted to more pressing uses when needed.
“The system operates as a Wi-Fi access point for the commuters when the bus is on the road,” explains Hunt. “When the bus enters a predefined geographical region, the software reconfigures the access point to become a Wi-Fi client and authenticate with the garage network. This seems trivial, but is our patent-pending technology, which allows us to reshape the communications scheme on a vehicle based on its location, time of day or the type of data passing through. What makes this unique is that we don’t just detect when a network is present and then connect; we actually change the operating mode of the interface to serve a dual purpose. In addition, we change the routing policies and reconfigure the Ethernet interfaces.”
Not only does layering utilities with differing importance over the same system have its own complexity; it creates its own security issues as well.
“Probably the issues that keep transit IT directors up at night are downtime and security,” says Hanley.
“One of the Wi-Fi Alliance’s purposes for being is to test stuff and certify Wi-Fi products that meet certain standards — especially standards of interoperability and security,” she says. “Products must pass our WPA 2 Security protocol which has both authentification and encryption components.
It is important for IT managers to demand Wi-Fi-certified products. If you’re in the Las Vegas airport — or on a commuter train — on wireless, you know it’s not secure, so you may send personal email, for example, but you probably wouldn’t access your company’s database. But if a transit company was sending back to the office business information, they’d want to be sure that the products they were using had a solid, tested security protocol.”
UTA thinks hard about potential security issues for even the smallest Wi-Fi functions. “We once locked ourselves out of our own bus,” laughs Brimley. “But better to err in the direction of caution than in the other direction, I guess.”
Like Watanabe, Kololli has found that the operational challenges of implementing a multifaceted Wi-Fi back office system (mastering the technology, creating a coverage footprint, making diverse equipment work together, etc.), sometimes seems easy compared to the business challenges.