Benjamin Graham - communications executive for Sygnal, a leading onboard WiFi provider for the passenger transport industry - discusses the hows and whys of making sure your transport is digitally connected.
Onboard WiFi is a near-ubiquitous amenity for transport networks today. Passengers expect connection as a standard feature on their journey, and companies that are unable or unwilling to provide it could find themselves losing customers to their more tech-savvy competitors.
How does it work?
Onboard WiFi works much like a mobile hotspot on your smartphone. The onboard server uses a data-SIM to receive high-speed download and upload packets via signals from network base stations.
Of course, unlike your home WiFi, the internet on public transport must be capable of supporting up to hundreds of unique users a day. That’s why onboard WiFi has to be able to run on high-capacity, switching between different network base stations according to whichever is closest at the time - no easy feat when vehicles are hurtling down motorways or along train tracks.
Simultaneously, there are areas where finding a connection simply isn’t possible. While these areas are becoming increasingly rare, onboard WiFi providers have developed solutions to deal with these inevitable blind spots. Sygnal Servers automatically cache popular web pages to allow passengers to continue browsing when there’s a drop in connection. Every Server also comes with options for in-built streaming of locally stored content to further relieve the burden on the WiFi.
The installation process can vary according to the type of vehicle. Many bus operators choose to simply connect the server to a power source in the dashboard. This enables drivers to turn the server on and off with ease.
However, the majority of operators will opt to wire the server directly into the vehicle wiring harness.
Many modern bus models come with an area just behind the driver's seat into which a WiFi server can be slotted and connected to the vehicle power supply. Of course, it’s important to ensure the server is protected from being tampered with while also allowing proper ventilation.
Operators using Sygnal WiFi often request a unit be installed in a position that enables the best coverage for passengers but, in truth, any onboard WiFi server worth its salt will have a range of 40 meters or more, ample reach for any road vehicle.
For train operators, installing a repeater in each carriage is usually enough to ensure every passenger has access to fast, reliable WiFi.
Benefits for passengers
Onboard WiFi connects passengers to the world and increases the likelihood that they’ll book with you again (not to mention that they will recommend your services to other people). Onboard WiFi is no longer a novelty feature – it’s an essential amenity that passengers expect. Operators who are unwilling or unable to meet this expectation could see an increase in negative reviews and even lost sales.
For passengers looking to get started on their work early, onboard WiFi allows them to check emails and read through documents. Passengers can even engage with clients and staff - after all, a quiet email will always be preferable to subjecting other passengers to a noisy phone conversation.
Benefits for operators
Besides the obvious added commercial value of providing passengers with onboard connectivity, WiFi offers a whole host of other opportunities for increasing revenues.
As old as the internet itself, online advertising offers a platform to engage with a huge audience, with the added value of gaining access to valuable information on the demographics, browsing behaviour and brand preferences of your audience. Of course, there are restrictions on the kind of data you can collect. All information gathered from interactions with your onboard WiFi must be completely anonymised in line with GDPR. Even with these restrictions, however, you can gain real insights to optimise your services.
The analytics gained from passenger interactions can also inform ad-pricing and give operators additional leverage when sourcing new advertisers. Through these advertising deals, operators can offset costs while providing a valuable platform to businesses on a local and national level.
Passenger metrics also provide a unique opportunity to offer personalised promotions. An operator running regular routes between London and Edinburgh, for example, can promote bars, restaurants, live venues and even hotels in the English and Scottish capitals.
Transport operators across the world still struggle to adequately cater to fluctuations in passenger numbers. Until recently, services would follow rigid scheduling patterns, with little effort made to adapt according to changes in demand. But with the advent of accessible data, companies can now pinpoint how many passengers board their vehicles at specific times. Operators can identify peak times, respond to seasonal variations and anticipate the impact of major events like festivals and holidays. Likewise, the growing pool of data garnered from onboard WiFi enables operators to map out travel patterns and add new services to underserved areas.
As data-sharing between general infrastructure becomes more widespread, public transport networks will gain access to unimaginable amounts of information. The data gathered from onboard WiFi alone can be used to develop faster, safer and more efficient services. This includes information on how many people use a service, at what times, and where their journey terminates.
In fact, industry figures and politicians are already pushing for a fully integrated data sharing model that allows transport networks to develop new services based on quantified evidence. Onboard WiFi will be a key component in this process.