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.
The IEEE is also currently working on an 802.11p draft amendment that would be layered over the IEEE 802.11 standard address — dealing with Wireless Access for the Vehicular Environment (WAVE). It defines enhancements to 802.11 required to support intelligent transportation systems (ITS) applications.
This draft amendment would include data exchange between high-speed vehicles and between the vehicles and the roadside infrastructure. So, for example, trains or buses could signal their approach to upcoming traffic signals, or roadside signs could give real-time traffic reports.
But 802.11p has not yet been released. It is hard to judge what it might mean, and when or how it would achieve critical mass — let alone when 802.11p itself will actually be released.
Some have suggested that to speed implementation of WAVE technologies, the FCC would have to license the 5.9 GHz spectrum for 802.11p applications in the automotive world and the DOT would have to deploy the receivers, transmitters and infrastructure needed to make use of that wireless capability. Although these components individually are inexpensive, retrofitting all the roads and vehicles in even one civic area can add up to a substantial budget item quickly.
Wi-Fi or cellular WAVE apps?
Security and privacy issues would also need to be addressed — as well as whether cellular technologies might beat out Wi-Fi as the technology to carry these features.
According to Karen Hanley, senior director of membership and marketing for the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance, one reason cellular technologies are in the running with Wi-Fi for vehicle data transfer is that Wi-Fi transfers you from access point to access point at walking speed, compared to cellular, which moves at about 60 mph.
“Of course,” she adds, “the data transfer is quite different, a trickle versus a fire hose.” That is one of the things the IEEE 802.11p, which is in the testing phase, seeks to address, she says.
The debate over which technologies will reach critical mass for traffic-related uses still rages: some put their money on cellular because many automobiles are already equipped with GPS/cellular transceivers (like GM’s OnStar system) which would give cellular an edge for achieving critical mass in WAVE-type applications.
Others say that as more and more municipalities strive to achieve uninterrupted Wi-Fi access for their other city services, Wi-Fi access would become ubiquitous, which would give Wi-Fi uninterrupted access, compatibility with related services (like police or other emergency services) and a more flexible data stream.
Philadelphia, for example, recently created a mesh Wi-Fi footprint of more than 135 square miles utilizing antennae on streetlights for both the city services network and to provide Wi-Fi access to lower income neighborhoods.
Cities as diverse as Austin, Texas; Lawrence, Kan.; Anaheim, Calif.; Cambridge, Mass.; San Francisco, Calif.; and Champaign-Urbana, Ill., already have partial or complete WiFi mesh coverage.
But regardless of the outcome of emerging Wi-Fi standards and technologies, Wi-Fi — even in its current incarnations — has much to offer.
Wi-Fi is widely implemented in security applications such as surveillance systems (some funded by Homeland Security grants). On-board systems are now available that allow real-time video streaming to nearby police vehicles through Wi-Fi networks, so that responders can execute a response quicker and more effectively.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), for example, deploys a high-speed wireless mesh network to provide mobile-to-mobile live video feeds between 155 of its new buses and laptops in MBTA police officers’ vehicles.
Of course, IP-based video cameras can run on any connection but once the access points are established, wireless can be more cost-effective and flexible — especially for remote camera locations like the edges of parking lots or out of station tracks.
“We use 802.11b to offload security camera digital video from buses,” says Watanabe. “This is much more efficient. Also the cameras can wirelessly send their operational status so we know if any cameras are not working properly.”
The King County Department of Transportation also uses 802.11b to transfer data from fuel pumps. “It was easier than laying in landlines at the bus base,” Watanabe says.
“The smart card and on-board systems will use 802.11g for data on/offload at the bases,” he says. “This same 802.11g system on the bus will be used on the street for the signal priority system to notify the intersection traffic controller signal of the bus’ arrival. Wi-Fi (likely 802.11g) will be used to transmit bus location information to real-time information signs on the street. This will not be done from the bus; rather the intersections will receive bus location information via a landline network from a central server and use Wi-Fi to make the ‘last mile’ connection to the info signs.”
Like the King County Department of Transportation, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) has an ambitious, multi-pronged Wi-Fi plan.
UTA implemented the United States’ first-ever contactless credit card bus payment solution in 2006. 41 buses serving the Salt Lake City area ski resorts were equipped with the new system, which, in addition to the payment choice of contactless credit cards, allowed customers to use smart cards to purchase lift tickets.
It got a fair amount of press coverage of its Wi-Fi contactless payments system, but that was just small part of an overall Wi-Fi plan.
UTA’s IT staff designed internally an application suite that incorporates radio frequency, Wi-Fi (802.11g), GPS and broadband/cellular technologies.
It started designing its suite of applications in 2003, and by 2005 it already had many functions in place, allowing communication between its computer-aided-dispatch and its vehicles in two to three keystrokes for operator feedback, detour information, service reliability information, automatic vehicle locator and computer-aided dispatch en route. Its application uploads software upgrades and scheduling data and downloads things like passenger counts when the bus returns to the yard.
“We’re taking Wi-Fi provided for passengers a step further,” says Abraham Kololli, deputy chief - IS manager at UTA. “We’ll have transit operations, reliability features, real-time detour information — all kinds of back office uses — riding on top of the generic wireless connectivity for passengers that everyone else is offering.”
And those layered applications, according to Hanley, are often overlooked but have the most potential for transit companies. “The underlying premise is that anything that was wired before can be replaced with Wi-Fi that is higher performance, less expensive and more flexible, as you are no longer tethered to copper wire, so many enterprises are simply replacing wires. But for industries like transit, what is really interesting is being able to do things that couldn’t be wired before.”
The fact that more and more commuting passengers want — or even demand — Wi-Fi is a given.
“There are more than 350 million Wi-Fi users worldwide, and they feel strongly about their Wi-Fi. We ran surveys that asked Wi-Fi users if they would rather give up Wi-Fi or their iPods, Wi-Fi or caffeine, Wi-Fi or their favorite sports team’s wins, or even Wi-Fi or chocolate, and the majority would rather have Wi-Fi than all those things — even chocolate,” Hanley laughs. “But although their riders may demand Wi-Fi, when you think about what is happening with Wi-Fi behind the scene that is probably more important.”
“We use the garage Wi-Fi a lot to automatically upgrade our internal bus applications and upload and download data,” explains Carrie Bohnsack-Ware, senior media specialist for UTA. “And we are currently in the preliminary design phase of equipping our entire fleet of buses with wireless capability for fare collection and other on-board technology systems.”
UTA worked with Parvus, a Salt Lake City-based technology engineering company that specializes in computing solutions for harsh environments (extreme temperature, vibration, impact, EMI/EMC-based, etc.) with several components of this plan.
“We are just now in the thick of delivering a system to Utah Transit Authority which provides Wi-Fi to passengers and switches to a download system when the bus returns to the yard,” says G. Andrew Hunt, director of transportation programs for Parvus. “The next step with UTA will be to add a priority engine which will allow passengers to use the Wi-Fi system unless a higher priority system needs to use the data channel. This is a first and is designed to allow one device to perform multiple functions so transit authorities see more ROI.”
“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.
“Trying to make sure that everyone gets the information they need, in the fashion they need to look at it, can be a real challenge,” he says. “It’s not enough to understand the technology; you need to understand how people in various departments process the information they receive. At first blush, it sounds like everyone wants the same information, but when you get right down to it, they each want it parsed out differently.”
“There are a lot of stakeholders involved,” he adds ruefully.
Lisa Anderson Mann is a freelance writer living in Northern California. She once asked a friend to build her a Pringles Can WiFi Antenna, but gave it up when she was told she would have to lose two of her favorite trees to get sightlines.