Turning Public Transit into Smart City Hot Spots

Veniam, a new civic tech startup headquartered Mountain View, Calif., aims to supply cities with affordable and infrastructure-friendly hot spots using public transit.

by / December 5, 2014
In Porto, Portugal, the startup Veniam has taken hundreds of public buses, taxis and garbage trucks, and transformed them into mobile hot spots that relay Wi-Fi to passengers and nearby devices. Veniam

Ubiquitous information, communication and connectivity. These are the lofty ambitions propelling a new Silicon Valley startup to rethink Internet access using public transportation.

João Barros, the former national director of the Carnegie Mellon Portugal program, and Susana Sargento, a professor at Portugal’s University of Aveiro, have launched Veniam, a startup that harnesses public transportation fleets to deliver Wi-Fi access to citizens. The service, also co-founded by Zipcar's Robin Chase and Roy Russell, hopes to be an enabler for the Internet of Things — a movement to connect a variety of products online — and a solution for affordable Internet access.

On Dec. 2, Veniam announced that it had gathered $4.2 million in Series A funding from backers True Ventures, Union Square Ventures, Cane Investments and additional private investors.

“Since 2005, we’ve been working on how to build networks of moving things,” Barros said in an interview with Government Technology, “and particularly networks of vehicles that can expand wireless coverage and gather huge amounts of data in a city.”

After two years of research to create the technology, Barros said it’s culminated in a successful deployment in Porto, Portugal: 60,000 users accessing the Internet that's delivered on a fleet of 600-plus vehicles. A bus passenger — or anyone within range of an equipped vehicle’s signal — can receive free Wi-Fi access through Veniam’s on-board units. Once a cellphone connects, the unit relays the requests to nearby Wi-Fi hubs around the city, or, alternatively, through vehicle-to-vehicle communication until it reaches a stationary Wi-Fi access point — cellular network usage is a backup option.

In Porto, Barros and his team sprinkled the city with a number of strategically placed Wi-Fi hubs —  the overall idea was to hit a critical mass of equipped vehicles and connection points in the city to ensure seamless Wi-Fi reach.

“Vehicles, if you think about it, are ideal hot spots because they have a battery, and everywhere you have a lot of people, you have a lot of vehicles,” Barros said. “Through our algorithms and network protocol, we are always able to choose the best and cheapest connection point.”

In terms of cost and efficiency, the system has potential to spell huge dividends for municipalities that seek a low-cost option for citizen Wi-Fi. Barros’ research indicates that every gigabyte sent through a cellular connection costs roughly $15, whereas through fixed Wi-Fi infrastructure, it’s only around 85 cents. Veniam’s potential savings may be a big draw for developing nations, highly dependent on mobile Internet access, yet unable to pay for cellular infrastructure — such as cellular towers in overly congested locales. A few African nations have already expressed strong interest in the tech and are investigating how it might be applied to passenger vans and shuttles.

“When we started this company, bringing the Internet to as many people as possible, irrespective of socioeconomic status was, and still is, very close to our heart,” Barros said.

Beyond Veniam’s democratizing effects in tech, it’s likewise designed to produce ample benefits for developed nations. The gains include easing burdens on cellular infrastructure, serving as a low cost network for the Internet of Things (cell networks often prohibitively expensive to connect the devices), and finally, as a collection method for smart city data and predictive analytics — providing sensors are installed in the fleets. Elaborating, Barros said affordable sensors could easily be placed on vehicles to collect data on such things as air pollution, traffic patterns, noise levels, fuel consumption and weather trends, to name a few. The data could be gathered in real time, offering a granular perspective of city life and, when analyzed, could be applied to create bus routes, optimize traffic lights, and serve as evidence for city planners recommending policies and capital projects. For the private sector, he added, the data may even prompt entrepreneurial activity if published as open data.

“Once this massive data is available from the cloud, we are convinced people will come up with all sorts of uses for it that we cannot even imagine today,” Barros said.

Since Veniam’s launch, it has experimented with a variety of business models to gather revenue. Yet the most common is a setup fee for cities coupled with a flat rate per vehicle for monthly services.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.