Tallahassee Presses Ahead with City Bus Wi-Fi

Published June 1, 2008

The city-owned transportation service in Tallahassee, Florida has installed wi-fi on 10 buses on six of its city routes that serve riders with long commutes.

The service, provided by the Parvus Corporation on the city’s StarMetro buses, cost city taxpayers $20,700 in one-time expenses for purchase and installation. The move puts Tallahassee among a growing list of municipalities with at least limited wireless Internet service on municipal transportation routes.

King County Metro in Seattle, the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Area Regional Transportation Authority, and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada are among other systems offering wi-fi. It’s an amenity that helps bring more passengers to their service, says Esme Vos, founder of MuniWireless.com, an Amsterdam-based portal that provides news and information on municipal wireless efforts.

Questionable Expenditure

Tom Henry, deputy communications director at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF), a public policy think tank based in Olympia, Washington, says the case for this use of taxpayer money is dubious. EFF has watched the developments in adding wireless to Seattle-area road and ferry transportation systems with interest and skepticism. People will take public transportation regardless of whether it has wi-fi access, Henry said.

“If public transportation is convenient, then you use it; otherwise you don’t,” Henry noted. “You make the decision that day. [Wi-fi] is a nice perk to have, but should it be a top priority of government?”

Whether wi-fi makes sense on transportation systems depends largely on the amount paid for the equipment, Henry said.

The Washington State ferry system, for example, is paying $22,000 for wi-fi to equip its ferries, even though the system “is already bleeding money,” Henry said. “It’s a question of priorities. Is this really where you want to be spending your money?”

Whether the wi-fi systems in Washington, Tallahassee, and elsewhere will actually increase ridership and therefore revenue remains to be seen, Henry added. Most of the systems are too new to determine whether they boosted ridership.

Another factor muddling the ridership contribution of wi-fi is the increasing cost of gasoline, which makes public transportation a more economical option than driving, Henry added.

Low Speed Limits Likely

Even the idea’s proponents agree wi-fi on public transportation systems will be limited in its usefulness. Though users will be able to send to and receive information from the system providing the connection to the Internet (cell or satellite system) at up to 300 MB per second, the backhaul system (which routes data between the buses and the larger system) will be unlikely to have speeds of more than 8 MB per second.

Kelly Davis-Felner, senior manager for the Wi-Fi Alliance in Austin, Texas, a trade association of 300 technology companies worldwide, said, “The bottleneck is the backhaul.”

Vos and Davis-Felner expect most use of wi-fi on mass transit systems to be limited primarily to checking e-mail, Web surfing, and other relatively low-bandwidth applications. Streaming video and other high-bandwidth applications will probably continue to be done at the home and office, they say.

Davis-Felner added, “It won’t provide the same experience that you have at your desk with a T-1 line or a wi-fi system connected to a cable modem, but you will be able to be productive or entertained while commuting to and from your destination.”

Other Benefits Possible

In addition to providing convenience for wi-fi users, the presence of wi-fi helps the transportation systems improve their operations through better tracking of buses and trains, Vos added. He says wi-fi is helping transit operators improve safety and efficiency by using widespread video surveillance and sophisticated maintenance and diagnostic tracking.

“If you think about commute time and people wanting to be more productive with that time, that’s really the benefit,” said Davis-Felner. “It’s an amenity that [public transportation] can add to attract riders.

“If they can be productive or entertained [via wi-fi services],” Davis-Felner said, “then they are more likely to use public transportation. Increased usage will help [pay for] the installation of the wi-fi system.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.