Going Wireless in Miami

Arriving in Miami to attend the annual APTA TransITech conference this week, one of the first things I noticed outside my hotel was a local bus wrapped in graphics promoting on-board passenger Wi-Fi. Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) launched the free Wi-Fi service in late 2009 as part of the Wireless Miami-Dade County Initiative, a revitalization plan driven by Major Carlos Alvarez that includes free Wi-Fi in parks and on airport shuttles. To date, free Wi-Fi has been extended to the Metrobus 95 Express service, and four Metrorail commuter cars. According to the city, the Wi-Fi has been well received by transit customers with more than 100,000 unique users since the service was launched. Interestingly, the in-vehicle initiative has been paid for through a commercial partnership with AT&T rather than using public funds. So it was fitting then that this year’s TransITech conference should be held in a city where free Wi-Fi on transit is rapidly becoming the norm.

The relevance of broadband wireless, and the timing of its implementation, continues to be of significant importance to transit operators. Federal mandates are driving reexamination of spectrum utilization, and the migration paths offered by emerging technologies. On January 1st 2013, all business/industrial and public safety land mobile radio (LMR) systems that operate between 150-174MHz VHF and 421-512MHz UHF must stop using 25kHz ‘wideband’ channels and move to more efficient 12.5kHz ‘narrowband’. The process – appropriately known as Narrowbanding – “may be more costly and disruptive than expected” for transit agencies, according to Derek Brown, manager of ITS Practice at Macro Corporation . More importantly, agencies that have not already started down the narrowband transition path are rapidly running out of time to secure funding and implement a plan. “Access to money is prohibiting action,” continued Brown, warning that with only 20 months to go before the deadline just 25% of UHF licensees have migrated.

Narrowbanding is prompting transit operators to look closely at their radio technologies, and consider future applications that, more often than not, are driving the need for greater bandwidth than the tiny data channels within LMR systems provide. Questions such whether to redesign or completely replace legacy CAD/AVL systems, and whether to leave voice on narrowband and move data to higher capacity cellular networks are at the forefront of the agency CIO’s mind, according to Brown.




Public Cellular

• High speed (40-600Kbps)
• Proven, stable access
• Affordable deployment
• Wide coverage
• Push-to-Talk capability

• Shared access
• Unpredictable coverage
• Unpredictable access
• Recurring fees

Public Cellular

• Broadband (2-20Mbps)
• Next Gen technology

• Slow roll-out/coverage
• Data-centric
• Premium recurring fees

Private Wi-Fi
(e.g. Mesh)

• Networking standard
• Easy to expand, configure

• Costly roll-out
• Unlicensed spectrum
• Prone to interference

IP Radio

• Common Voice & Data
• Mission-critical performance
• Interoperable

• Expensive
• Low-speed data


Wireless Technology Alternatives (source: Derek Brown, Macro)

If Narrowbanding is the catalyst for transit agencies to reexamine their wireless requirements, then understanding the possible applications for broadband – such as IP-CCTV, real-time AVL and passenger Wi-Fi – is paramount. According to Jim Allison, Manager of Planning at the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA ) in Oakland CA, the relative scarcity of bandwidth means that being able to predict usage is key to a successful broadband implementation. CCJPA manages the intercity passenger train system in Northern California, serving commuters on a 170-mile route between San Jose and Sacramento. With ridership up 8% more than 2010 levels, CCJPA expects around 1.7 million trips on the service in FY 2011-12. According to the latest CCJPA business plan, in the same period the operator will spend under $4 million equipping its fleet with a free Wi-Fi service. “Intercity rail has greater demands on backhaul capacity,” explain Allison, citing the need for cellular network aggregation and packet-level load balancing to squeeze as much bandwidth as possible from multiple concurrent network connections across multiple providers.

Fortunately new 4G cellular technologies such as LTE are creating bigger pipes for demanding applications and heavy traffic. “LTE is already set to become the wireless broadband standard for mission-critical public safety applications, so it should be sufficiently capable for mass transit,” confirmed Alan Tilles, an attorney with Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker of Potomac MD. Clearly broadband implementation such as that described by CCJPA does not come cheap. But as Allison points out, a transit agency’s business model must show such a service is sustainable. While others have tried charging for Wi-Fi access, or hoped that advertising would foot the bill (both flawed approaches according to Allison), CCJPA has opted for the Induced Ticket Revenue model – in short, Wi-Fi must pull in more paying passengers. “A 1% increase in ticket sales should break even on CCJPA’s costs and 2% would put us in the black,” says Allison; a model born out by T-Systems in Germany and the Amtrak Acela service in the Northeastern United States. If correct, then this is a formulaic rule-of-thumb other transit authorities could use to gauge how much budget to apportion to passenger Wi-Fi initiatives.


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 that is developing a strategic plan for implementation of wireless technologies in mass transit. Contact Baker via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.