Mobile Wi-Fi Challenge #2: Providing Solid Internet Connectivity

A couple of decades ago, traveling meant being out of contact. Now, people are more connected than ever before while moving between destinations, whether riding an inner-city bus or soaring 30,000 feet above the ground. Increasing numbers of passengers use digital devices during transit. A DePaul University study, for instance, found that of 7,770 passengers on 92 buses, trains and planes, about half were using portable devices such as iPads and laptops at any given time. Many workers take advantage of their commute time to start in on the workday. Others simply want to unwind with online entertainment. But until recently, one needed a special wireless card to access the Internet en route.

Fortunately, however, Wi-Fi technology is beginning to catch up with the desire for constant connectivity. The first major shift that’s helping speed train and bus Wi-Fi is the switch from older 3G cellular wireless networks to 4G networks. A few years ago, Amtrak made a big show of touting its new Wi-Fi service, only to be widely panned for terrible reliability. One reason for the system’s failure was its reliance on 3G networks, which simply couldn’t provide enough bandwidth for hundreds of passengers — not to mention all of those using the cellular networks each Amtrak train passed and tapped into.

The nationwide 4G cellular network, based on WiMAX and LTE technology, is 10 times faster than its predecessor. This alone will help bus and train Wi-Fi accelerate. However, some technological obstacles are still holding back many train and bus Wi-Fi systems.

Technological Difficulties of Reliable WiFi Access on Mass Transit

Mass transit is one of the last “unplugged” zones for good reason. Wi-Fi devices for trains and buses must be rugged enough to survive bumpy roads and inclement weather. Moreover, there are unique connectivity issues related to mass transit Wi-Fi:

• It’s easy to provide reliable Internet connectivity in a stable location; moving targets like buses and trains, on the other hand, are more difficult to outfit with Wi-Fi. As they zoom along, buses and trains transition from one cell tower’s Wi-Fi zone to another, decreasing the consistency of wireless signals. There is a “handoff” moment during which the vehicle transitions from one cell signal to the next. If this handoff is not smooth, there may be interruptions in service.

• 3G and 4G networks are optimized for population centers, not for transportation routes. This is generally not an obstacle for inner-city bus Wi-Fi; train Wi-Fi, however, can be spotty when the tracks run on the edge of cell towers’ wireless zones. On a brighter note, cellular providers have started installing towers along busy routes. For instance, Sprint Nextel has installed towers along a heavily trafficked stretch of San Francisco’s BART line.

• Ground-level transportation must compete for connectivity with other ground-level users. This is one reason airlines have been faster to offer consistent Wi-Fi access — miles above the earth, they don’t have to compete for solid signals.

• As more and more passengers use Internet-enabled devices, the demand for available bandwidth will increase, putting even more pressure on cell towers. If you do happen to find yourself on a Wi-Fi-equipped bus or train, it will probably be impossible to watch online videos, for instance. Instead, passengers will have more success if they select online activities with lower data demands, such as checking email.

• Tunnels and other underground areas along transit routes are notoriously difficult to keep connected.

In addition to these issues, train and bus Wi-Fi systems must be tough enough to survive jarring conditions and inclement weather. Further, the cost of installing Wi-Fi systems on mass transit can be too high for agencies to swallow. Wi-Fi providers are sidestepping this impediment by designing advertising and subscription options that can pay for the wireless system’s operation.

Those agencies that do install train and bus Wi-Fi often find their efforts rewarded with an increase in ridership, as passengers are drawn to services that keep them productive and online. Finally, there are several operational benefits to installing train and bus Wi-Fi systems. With all train cars or buses connected to a central management center, video-monitoring efforts can be far more effective.

Wi-Fi also empowers transit agencies to monitor the location of each bus or train, along with the performance of brakes, air conditioning and other on-board systems. Given that federal transportation funding such as the MAP-21 program is based on “state of good repair” requirements, Wi-Fi could empower agencies to excel at monitoring their own performance, thereby winning funding. The combination of passenger demand and funding prerequisites could be the perfect motivation for transit agencies to overcome the technological barriers to in-transit Wi-Fi.

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