Mass Transit & Mobile Wireless Internet: The Challenge of Costs

Given the ubiquity of W-iFi these days, it can be jarring to walk onto a bus or train and lose your signal. After all, you can get wireless access almost anywhere: in restaurants, on planes — there’s even a hotspot at Mt. Everest’s base camp. For those who commute to work, lack of connectivity equates to wasted productivity. Yet many transit authorities report that installing Wi-Fi systems would be financially unfeasible. But is mobile wireless Internet really exorbitantly expensive for mass transit agencies?

Not necessarily, judging from the presence of Wi-Fi on Boston, Miami and Silicon Valley transportation systems. Passengers on Miami buses, Boston trains and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s (VTA) light rail trains and express buses all enjoy complimentary Wi-Fi. The reason these and other transit agencies across the country chose to install train or bus Wi-Fi is clear: Internet access is a highly sought amenity among passengers. A recent survey by Devicescape found that 91 percent of passengers expect Wi-Fi access while traveling.

It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that transit authorities who install train or bus Wi-Fi often see an increase in ridership. The Capitol Corridor Intercity Rail Service, which runs between Sacramento and San Jose, installed train Wi-Fi two years ago and has seen a 2 percent rise in ridership since that time. VTA’s newest express buses that hit the streets in January 2012, featuring high-back reclining seats, footrests and free Wi-Fi, are experiencing a 16 percent increase in ridership.

ll across the country, passengers clamor for Wi-Fi access; mobile wireless Internet is the most requested amenity among Caltrain riders, for instance. And demographic studies have found that 71 percent of rail commuters carry a mobile device or laptop and wish they could connect to the Internet while commuting.

A couple of years ago, technological barriers prevented transportation authorities from creating consistent, reliable bus and train Internet connections. High-speed rail lines, for example, could not sustain consistent connections because the 3G cellular network wasn’t broad enough to allow passenger access. Today, the 4G cellular network is fueling the invention of powerful commuter line Wi-Fi devices.

Yet even with up-to-speed wireless Internet technology, many agencies are still prevented from adding wireless networks due to the considerable price tag. For instance, Caltrain estimates it would cost $3 million to add wireless access in its commuter coaches. Similarly, the Capital Corridor network took 8 years and $3.75 million to install.

Funding the installation of Wi-Fi directly may indeed be a Sisyphean task for mass transit agencies. But administrators across the U.S. have found creative ways to make Wi-Fi access a reality. Here are a few effective models of funding mobile wireless internet on mass transit:

1. Sponsorship

Technology and communication companies recognize the value of having Wi-Fi on trains and buses. More connectivity equates to more advertising that can be sold, so advertising companies are also potential sponsors. This is the route Caltrain hopes to take. In Silicon Valley, technology and advertising companies directly sponsored the installation of Wi-Fi on the VTA light rail trains.

2. Advertising

Some Wi-Fi systems now include advertising schema to make free passenger Internet access affordable. Most passengers (68 percent, according to Devicescape) are willing to watch ads in exchange for free Wi-Fi. This approach is currently working in New York’s subway stations. Advertisers love that commuters are a captive audience, as passengers are willing to watch ads in order to access online content.

3. Charging Passengers for Access

It might surprise you to learn that 25 percent of those surveyed by Devicescape were willing to pay up to $3 per hour for Wi-Fi. This is the model Southwest has chosen for its fleet; passengers pay $5 to access Wi-Fi at 30,000 feet. Mobile Wi-Fi outfitters such as Wi-Fi Rail, a company specializing in train Wi-Fi, offer daily, monthly, annual and corporate connection rates.

Wi-Fi can also be folded into a transit brand’s complete overhaul, as was the case for Greyhound. The company aimed to redefine the experience of interstate bus rides. Revitalization of the Greyhound fleet was step one; extra leg room, LED lighting and electrical outlets were some of the improvements made, along with the installation of Wi-Fi on more than 800 buses. Since installation in 2010, Greyhound passengers have enjoyed more than 4 million online sessions thanks to the reliable Wi-Fi system. 

The Santa Clara VTA also added Wi-Fi on its Express Buses as part of a rebranding that included reading lights, luggage racks and reclining seats.

As passengers come to expect Wi-Fi on all forms of transportation, it will be increasingly difficult for non-wired transit agencies to compete for ridership. Fortunately, there are several financial routes mass transit agencies can take when it comes to funding mobile Wi-Fi.


Rob Taylo is founder and CEO of SinglePoint Communications, an exclusive U.S. distributor of WiFi in Motion — a rugged suite of products designed to offer high-speed wireless Internet on public transit, private charter and personal vehicles.

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