San Francisco Tests New Wi-Fi Bus

San Francisco Tests New Wi-Fi Bus
November 1, 2008

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency has established a partnership with computer networking company Cisco Systems, Inc. to create a prototype “Connected Bus,” a hybrid vehicle with touch-screen monitors inside and free wireless Internet.

But concerns are emerging about the cost and the role of government in providing such consumer technology services.

Painted bright green and equipped with data about riders’ carbon footprints, the bus features five state-of-the art touch screens displaying all kinds of transportation information, such as estimated arrival times, connecting lines, and system-wide maps.

San Francisco introduced the so-called Green Bus in February. It will run on various lines through the city for a one-year test period.

Hoping for Future Business

Cisco created the model bus for $10,000 and absorbed the development cost with the goal of landing a city contract to wire all the city’s buses.

The objective, according to Cisco, is to provide a reliable and safe ride, reduce time spent in traffic, reduce carbon emissions, and give riders access to timely route information. Organizers say they hope the ability to work and connect online on the bus will translate into more riders and fewer people commuting by car.

“It allows you to be living your life, instead of always going from point A to point B,” said David Evans, Cisco’s chief technologist in its Internet Business Solutions Group.

Kelly Davis, marketing director of the WiFi Alliance—an international, nonprofit industry organization of 300-plus member companies—said the idea is to test and certify wi-fi devices for security and interoperability. Davis said San Francisco bus riders will like the opportunity to be productive in what would otherwise be down time.

“I think what wi-fi on any transportation system does is attract ridership, which certainly has benefits; a car has been removed from the street. It’s a fairly inexpensive technology to deploy,” Davis said.

Cost, Practicality Questioned

Municipal bus riders and other San Francisco Bay Area taxpayers have mixed feelings on the value of offering wi-fi on a bus.

“There’s not enough arm space on the bus to use a laptop, and then there’s the problem of potentially having your laptop stolen,” said Michael Leo, senior product manager for Ask.com.

Leo said the only benefit he could think of is for people using phones that can connect to wi-fi networks, such as iPhones. “That would be kind of sweet,” he said.

“It would make sense on the trains,” said Eve Chaurand-Fraser, associate general counsel at Ask.com. “I’m not sure if it makes sense on a bus. It’s hard to type in a moving bus. For those with long train commutes, I can see how it would be helpful.”

At the heart of the debate is the cost.

“This bus wi-fi project is interesting, but what caught my eye was the $10,000 price tag per bus,” said Steve Sasman, who runs More Mobile Internet of Phoenix, Arizona, a company that provides wi-fi services to tour buses, limousines, and RVs at an equipment cost of less than $300 per vehicle. “It seems like another typical case of governmental spending wasting taxpayer dollars.”

Part of Larger Effort

San Francisco has been trying to provide wireless Internet for its residents for some time. Last summer an ambitious plan by Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) to wire the whole city fell apart when private-sector partner EarthLink bowed out.

Newsom has promised to continue with that project, however, and in June spoke of a city wireless service to debut by 2009. The city is working with a local company called Meraki, which is donating its wi-fi equipment to San Francisco residents as part of a larger marketing effort.

In the pending deal with Meraki, the city would not be using tax money to provide Internet services. The plan for Internet on buses presents a more complicated issue.

Attorney Ken Fellman of Denver-based Kissinger and Fellman said he thinks decisions on whether to invest in communications infrastructure should be made locally and focus on meeting local needs.

“What may be a wise investment of tax dollars in one community may be a lousy investment in another,” said Fellman, an expert on local government communications policies. “Ultimately, whether this is a good idea for San Francisco, is for San Francisco citizens and policymakers to decide.”

 

Celeste Ward Altus (celeste.altus@gmail.com) writes from San Francisco.