As the bus rolled along a city street, passengers watched an episode of Bonanza on TV screens mounted at three points inside the cabin. A ribbon of news, weather, sports and stock updates crawled across the bottom of each display. To the left, a graphic showed the vehicle moving toward its next stop, and as the bus neared that location, both the text display and an automated voice announced its imminent arrival.

Periodically the TV ran advertisements for local and national businesses.

In March and April, Denver's Regional Transportation District (RTD) tested the Transit TV system, operated by the Transit Television Network (TTN) of Orlando, Fla. The RTD put Transit TV in eight buses and two light rail cars.

Not Just TV

Denver's RTD came across the TTN while looking for alternative ways to generate revenues to fund operating expenses, said Andy Todaro, sales manager at the transit agency.

Transit TV currently plays in approximately 1,500 vehicles in Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee, Orlando, and Norfolk, Va. -- and the company is installing equipment on another 2,000 vehicles in Los Angeles County, said Jeff Jensen, vice president of the TTN.

After viewing a TTN presentation, the RTD issued a request for proposals for a contractor to implement a video-based information system that would generate advertising revenues. The TTN was the only vendor to submit a proposal to the city's RFP, said Georgann Fisher, a sales executive at Denver's RTD and manager of its Transit TV program.

Agency officials decided to implement a video system instead of mounting billboards on their buildings or wrapping buses in advertisements, because the agency wanted to determine whether Transit TV could help the RTD meet a need that was even more pressing than extra revenue.

The RTD needed to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and to do so meant providing both text-based and audible next stop announcements for hearing- or vision-impaired riders, Todaro said, explaining that stop-announcement systems are expensive and the TTN offered a way to implement the service at no cost.

Denver elected not to sign a long-term contract with the TTN because of operational issues, said Scott Reed, the RTD's director of public affairs.

"We have certain operational and safety requirements for installing equipment on our transit vehicles, and we were not able to come to agreement on those issues," Reed said, also citing potential liability coverage issues that did not meet the RTD's policies. "We are still looking into the possibilities for similar types of onboard television systems, and have had discussions with other vendors."

Local News, Weather, Stocks

The TTN provides its equipment and service to transit agencies in major markets at no charge in exchange for the right to sell and display advertisements. In smaller markets, the TTN will lease the equipment to the agency, although the company has not yet struck a deal of that kind, Jensen said. In either case, the transit agency receives a portion of the advertising revenues.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) will receive a minimum of either $100,000 per year or 10 percent of gross advertising revenues, whichever is greater, according to the MTA.

The onboard equipment includes a personal computer, and between two and four LCD screens mounted at various points inside the bus or rail car. A GPS tracks the vehicle's location as it moves from stop to stop. The system uses wireless data communications based on the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard to transmit programming to onboard computers.

The TTN purchases content from vendors or gets it free of charge from public sources such as the National Weather Service, Jensen said. Some of the news comes from the Toronto Star, which like the TTN, is owned by Toronto-based Torstar Corp. Each market receives a unique feed.

"We customize things like the news, weather and stock reports," he said. "We list local stocks as opposed to national stocks."

The program stream includes episodes of classic TV shows that have fallen into the public domain, allowing the TTN to show them for free, though Jensen said the company plans to phase them out in favor of more information-oriented programming.

On the Orlando area's LYNX transit system, programming includes public service videos the agency produces itself, said Brian Martin, manager of media relations at LYNX.

The TTN transmits the program stream via the Internet to a series of servers that each transit agency installs in its garages and other facilities. Each server is connected to a Wi-Fi antenna, creating a wireless hotspot. Before setting out in the morning, transit vehicles receive a fresh programming download via the wireless network. The onboard computer stores a day's worth of programming, but whenever a vehicle comes in range of a hotspot, it receives a new transmission, updating the news feed and other information.

The TTN doesn't plan to take advantage of the Wi-Fi networks that some cities have been installing for their own communications needs.

"We like to keep our own little network for security reasons," Jensen said, adding that it's simpler that way to deter hackers from trying to display unauthorized material on the buses. Such a trick would be difficult in any case, he said, because the onboard system won't play any file that doesn't originate in the TTN's offices.

Along with providing data for the stop announcements, the GPS on each bus allows the TTN to customize programming by geographic zone.

"We divided Chicago into three sectors," he said, noting that advertisements for certain local businesses play only while the bus travels in the zone where the business is located. The system can also switch to bilingual audio and text as the bus enters a zone where many riders speak a language other than English.

Revenue Stream

In central Florida, where LYNX served as the beta site for the TTN in 1999, most passengers liked the service, Martin said.

"The great thing about TTN is that it gives them something to do," he said, making the service a boon in a tri-county transit district where many commutes last an hour or more. The biggest opposition comes from drivers, who sometimes shut the system off because they find the audio annoying.

"It's a revenue generator for us, and it helps us with our ADA compliance," Martin said, so the system will stay. LYNX is currently expanding the system from 160 buses to its entire fleet of 238.

Other companies are starting to enter the public transit market with similar offerings. One is The Rail Network (TRN), based in Atlanta, which is targeting subways and commuter rail systems with a service that offers TV, music and advertisements. While the TTN transmits to buses belonging to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), TRN was scheduled to start delivering local TV newscasts to screens on MARTA's subways this spring, with multiple channels of audio available via personal headsets connected to FM radios or cell phones.

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer