Commuters on the Front Range Express (FREX) bus heading from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Denver are seeing constant improvements to its Wi-Fi service.

"We've proven that it will work," said Brian Giernacky, information systems analyst for the Colorado Springs Transit Services Division. "There is a huge demand for it -- I mean the riders just are ecstatic when it works."

Now the service is based on cellular communications, and Giernacky pointed out that cellular coverage along the bus route is choppy. In addition, the cellular pipe's limited capacity is strained as more passengers log on, some of whom seek to establish bandwidth-heavy, virtual private networks to remotely access desktop computers.

"We're trying to come up with a better, more stable solution that will be faster for one, because the cellular isn't very fast," he said, "and two, be more stable."

Pioneer Offering

Giernacky said he believes that Colorado Springs Transit Services Division was the first agency in the country to offer Wi-Fi on a local commuter bus system -- the FREX service and its Wi-Fi offering launched in October 2004.

Depending on where and when customers board, the trip on FREX can take as long as two and a half hours, and more than half of FREX customers use the service five days a week. "When you're stuck on a bus that long," Giernacky said, "[Wi-Fi access] is a great feature to have that might entice people to ride instead of drive."

Bus riders with Wi-Fi-enabled laptop computers can access the Internet for free, and the transit services division is not incurring any additional expense to provide the service. It piggybacks on an existing automatic vehicle location (AVL) system.

"Surf as you ride. Why wait to check your e-mail from home or the office? FREX is a mobile hotspot," the agency says in their promotional material. Since FREX began, ridership has increased steadily to an average of 625 trips per day, and FREX is now transitioning from a demonstration project to a permanent service.

An Evolving Service

The agency originally created the Wi-Fi capability by placing a laptop and a wireless router on each FREX bus. The laptops were outfitted with AT&T Wireless Edge modem cards and used Windows 2000 Internet Connection Sharing to access and distribute the Internet connection. The agency used low-speed computers that a local utility company was disposing of, purchased wireless routers for about $75 apiece, and paid about $50 per month for the data service.

But the system required bus drivers to turn the laptops on every morning as part of their pretrip routine. "This was becoming more of a hassle than it was worth," Giernacky said.

In January 2005, the agency switched to a system that is integrated with the AVL system installed on the FREX fleet by VeroTrak in Colorado Springs. Each bus carries a vehicle tracking unit, which is an embedded Linux box with a global positioning system receiver and a wireless Sprint cellular modem for data communications. The vehicle tracking unit is now connected to a wireless access point (WAP) that shares an Internet connection with bus riders.

Bus drivers no longer have to turn on the Wi-Fi system. The AVL system is hard-wired into the bus' electrical system, and when that is turned on, the AVL and the Wi-Fi capability are both activated.

James Bentley, a software architect for VeroTrak, said the AVL tracking data comes out at a considerable rate, but is so low-bandwidth that they had plenty of access to provide Internet service to bus riders.

Giernacky noted that the setup didn't cost the agency anything additional on top of the original AVL system. The WAP units cost about $75 apiece, which he said is "a very miniscule amount of money when you look at the big picture."

Satellite Option

VeroTrak and the Transit Services Division are now looking to improve the AVL and Wi-Fi service by using satellite communications, possibly with cellular backup, and VeroTrak software that will maintain link integrity in a mobile environment.

"If we can find a viable solution that is affordable, then hopefully by the end of this year we can get something in place," Giernacky said, adding that he doesn't have a cost estimate for migration to a new technology at this time.

Once the Wi-Fi service is more reliable, Giernacky said the Colorado Springs Transit Services Division might add it to express routes as an additional amenity to "enhance the commute."

Mike Curran  |  Contributing Writer