SOON IRELAND WILL HAVE ONE OF THE MOST EXTENSIVE PUBLIC TRANSPORT WI-FI NETWORKS IN THE WORLD. AND IT’S ALL THANKS TO A PLUCKY DUBLIN START-UP.
There are some business ideas that seem so blindingly brilliant you wonder why nobody thought of them before. One such idea is FleetConnect, the award-winning Irish company that provides wi-fi across Ireland’s public transport system. FleetConnect founder and MD Patrick Cotter is modest about his moment of inspiration.
“I just had the idea,” he says. “I come from that background in static wi-fi.” Before founding FleetConnect, Cotter worked as an IT consultant. He developed a passion for W/LAN technologies and saw a gap in the market to deliver high-speed broadband on transport services.
Founded in 2008, FleetConnect won the 2011 National Enterprise Award for ‘Best New Business’ and the 2011 Fingal Enterprise Award as part of Fingal Enterprise Week. In 2013, FleetConnect won the Wi-fi Alliance Award. FleetConnect began rolling out wi-fi services on mainline train services in 2011 and now provides free internet access across the entire Iarnród Éireann network.
“We fit each carriage out with a router or with an access point. We have head end equipment at the top of the train and we draw down from multiple mobile networks,” explains Cotter. In the past, mobile data services were slow and clunky, making for an unsatisfying (and often deeply frustrating) consumer experience. While mobile services have significantly improved and can now provide broadband-like connectivity speeds, this can be expensive, particularly for pay-as-you-go mobile customers.
FleetConnect’s technology acts as a bridge between the cellular data network and wi-fi hotspots, switching between providers so that passengers get the fastest internet connection available, depending on where their train happens to be. This means full wireless connectivity on the move is now available to passengers whether they use laptops, smart phones, tablets or any other wi-fi enabled device.
FleetConnect is a small company with a staff of twenty, based in Blanchardstown. Covering the entire Iarnród Éireann network must have been a difficult task. “It took us nearly a year but it’s been operational since 2011. It was a challenge. The whole thing was a challenge!” laughs Cotter. “It took us a while to get it to where it is now, particularly for the amount of people who are using it.
We had to make sure there was enough bandwidth available and that took a while. At the moment they can get up to 8MB download speed. They can get 14MB. It depends on how many people are using it. We block all streaming sites so it’s fair for everybody.” Blocking sites that hog bandwidth, such as YouTube, was a decision to ensure fair usage, explains Cotter. It was not enough to provide a free service; it also had to be consistent.
“A lot of people use the service now for work; they can work on the way to Cork or Limerick or wherever they are going, and most people want to be able to check their email, Facebook or Twitter on the move.” With the increase in the number of people using smartphones, the demand for the service has certainly been high. In September of 2013, 562,380 passengers used the service on Iarnród Éireann.
With this in mind, from next year, FleetConnect will be launching data allocation for all users across the Iarnród Éireann network. This will mean an even better user experience. FleetConnect may be a small company, but it is one with big ambitions. “Per capita in the world, Ireland will have the biggest passenger wi-fi network – fitted with our solution,” promises Cotter.