The availability of Wi-Fi on public transport in Ireland has risen dramatically over the past few months – with several more operators preparing to launch web access for customers, writes Gordon Smith.
Typical: you wait ages for a bus with internet access and then loads of them come along at once. Since the start of the year, several private coach operators around the country have begun offering web access to customers via Wi-Fi. Best of all, it’s free.
The country’s largest private coach firm, JJ Kavanagh & Sons, was the first mover and has installed Wi-Fi on all of its coach fleet.
Others have followed since, including Dublin’s Aircoach, Matthews Coach Hire and Collins Coaches, which operates from Monaghan. There is also GoBus, which provides an express Dublin to Galway service, McGinley’s of Donegal, Airporter in Derry and Butlers Buses, a Cork-based tour operator.
Access speeds vary according to mobile network coverage, up to 3.6Mbs and, in some cases, the higher network speed of 7.2Mbs.
The caveat is that this is a theoretical maximum. In reality, speeds between 1 and 2Mbs are the norm in most areas. The Wi-Fi router fitted on the buses can typically handle a maximum of 11 people using the service at the same time. Most private coaches seat about 50 people and, on average, 10 per cent of passengers would use the Wi-Fi service – so there should be enough capacity for most journeys.
The services are easy to use. First-time visitors are greeted by a splash page where they enter some details to log on, and fill out a short questionnaire. The system will recognise each user on subsequent visits. In time, this page could include location-based advertising – for coaches fitted with GPS receivers, or links to the bus company’s e-ticketing system.
More importantly, the service is clearly meeting a need. Matthews Coaches installed wi-fi on 23 of the larger coaches in its fleet and, in the two months since the service was launched, it has been accessed 5,160 times by 1,154 unique users.
“So far, the feedback has been 97 per cent positive,” said managing director Paddy Matthews. “There are a couple of spots on the motorway where you lose coverage but that’s al l. I’m very happy with it. We made a good move and we’re pleased with it.”
Matthews’ customer numbers are up 16 per cent on last year. “We’re attributing it to us getting more customers,” he said.
A Dublin company, FleetConnect, has been driving much of the adoption of Wi-Fi on buses and has signed up most of the major private coach operators in the country. Its system uses Wi-Fi to provide a signal within the bus, and it connects to the internet over the 3G mobile network through an antenna located on the roof of the coach.
According to Patrick Cotter, managing director of FleetConnect, the antenna is more powerful than the standard modem that 3G mobile subscribers would have, and it significantly improves the quality of coverage.
“We’ve got high gain antennas and it gives almost a guaranteed signal,” he said. “We can also use two 3G cards simultaneously – one for Vodafone and one for the O2 network – and we can seamlessly switch between the two so it guarantees the strongest signal at any one time.”
Most current laptops come with built-in wi-fi antennas – an increasingly common feature on smartphones such as Nokia’s &EURO;51 and the iPhone. Another option taken by Butler Buses in Cork was to provide access via Bluetooth.
The thinking behind this was to attract a wider group of users who had mobile phones, said managing director Ian Butler.
Younger passengers or tourists are more likely to have mobiles and, therefore, they can use the Bluetooth service, whereas businesspeople with laptops can connect via Wi-Fi.
The Bluetooth option isn’t a full internet service but is restricted to certain preselected sites including Facebook, RTE, Freetext, Flickr and Wikipedia. New sites are being added all the time, and those with mobile-ready versions are likely to be up for consideration.
Kevin O’Connor, managing director of Bluezone Media, which supplied the technology to Butlers Buses, said the Bluetooth router could handle up to 42 simultaneous connections, given the lower bandwidth needed to load web pages.
“When you are browsing on a mobile phone, the download speed is going to be very quick because it’s mostly text, with no images,” he said.
This being Ireland, it’s perhaps surprising that the coach firms haven’t taken their lead from existing Wi-Fi hotspots which frequently charge a premium price for access. For now, many operators simply see it as a way to get more people using their service.
“We obviously want people to use it. It will entice more people onto the buses,” said Matthews.
Jim Burke, managing director of GoBus, was of a similar mind. “We intend to keep it free because we’ve found that people want it and are using the service because we have it,” he said. “We’re getting repeat business from it.”
Timing also played a part. According to Cotter, the first British operator to offer the service charged customers, which meant that others could do likewise. In Ireland, JJ Kavanagh chose not to do so and, after that, Cotter believes other operators would have had trouble justifying a price to users.
What’s more, the coach companies can offset their costs in more creative ways than charging passengers a fee, said Evert Bopp, chief executive of wireless specialist provider AirAppz.
“Our philosophy is, Wi-Fi access to the user has to be free because there are other ways for the operator to make money, such as location-based services or advertising,” he said. “For example, if you’re passing by Heuston Station you would see advertising that’s relevant to businesses close to Heuston.
Once you move on, the advertising dynamically updates.”
Bopp, who has waged a long campaign for Wi-Fi on public transport, is not surprised that independent coach companies have been the first to offer these services here.
“Look at anywhere else in the developed world: if you go out to Silicon Valley, the buses and trams have Wi-Fi. In Ireland, we’re desperately lagging behind and it’s typical that it’s the private sector which is taking up the running,” he said. “I think the government should look at some kind of stimulus – that would make it attractive for business travellers to get out of their cars and use public transport more.” Private operators’ biggest competitor, Bus Eireann, has yet to show its hand on the internet issue.
“Bus Eireann is currently engaged in an ongoing trial of Wi-Fi services to see if they are suitable for use on our road passenger fleet, while also factoring in the rise in the popularity of mobile broadband,” a spokesman for the state company said.
Testing is likely to continue for some time, as the spokesman confirmed there was no launch date set for the service.
“We are also conscious of the fact that the growth of mobile broadband may impact on usage of Wi-Fi on buses. Obviously, Wi-Fi would be a significant investment considering we have a passenger fleet of approximately 700 vehicles,” he said.
There’s more positive news for regular train users. This summer, Irish Rail will begin a commercial wi-fi trial on the Dublin to Cork route. No date has been set but, according to Irish Rail spokesman Barry Kenny, the trial will be well publicised and is likely to last for a few months at least.
“It will be a good length of time,” said Kenny. “That will allow us to establish the demand for it and the commercial opportunities around it.”
Much of the trial will focus on addressing any technical issues – for example, establishing how many wireless access points would be needed to provide sufficient bandwidth to users in every carriage. Telecoms experts also said that moving quickly between mobile base stations could cause the signal to vary strongly, so this may also need to be addressed. These factors make it likely that it will be a free trial, Kenny said.
In preparation for the test phase, several providers are being asked to present options for supplying Wi-Fi to Irish Rail.
One significant obstacle around mobile internet access is power: batteries in older laptops may not last much more than two hours, so it’s worth checking whether the coach has electricity sockets, especially for journeys of two hours or more. In this case, Irish Rail may have an advantage when its service is commercially available.
As things stand, every seat in first class has a power socket and there are some additional electricity sources in the second-class carriages. The newer rolling stock, which is being rolled out on all the main train lines, will supply power to all seats, according to Kenny.
All told, public transport may be the final frontier as far as the internet is concerned – whatever your preferred means of conveyance.
One large Dublin taxi firm with close to 100 cabs is reportedly trialling a service from AirAppz, and the service is due to launch some time in June. Potential passengers will receive a Bluetooth alert to their phone telling them that the taxi has internet access and there will also be signage to inform passers-by.
Not before time, hearing the words ‘fares please’ is no longer a cue to go offline for hours at a time. For commuters around the country, the buzz of nearby headphones will soon be matched by the clatter of keyboards.