Buses and trains in the Houston area are expected to have Wi-Fi connectivity by mid-2021. Metropolitan Transit Authority officials will add new routers to over 1,000 vehicles over the course of the next 15 months.
(TNS) — Riders hopping aboard Houston area buses and trains will be able to surf the web by mid-2021 as they travel the entire region.
Building on a pilot project offering Internet access on board two routes and the Green and Purple train lines, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials will outfit 1,736 vehicles over the next 15 months with new routers. Once all the buses, trains and paratransit vehicles are connected, riders will be able to use Wi-Fi on smartphones, tablets and computers across the entire transit system.
“This is something our riders have asked for for a while,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro.
It has taken Metro a while to get to this point. It was December 2018 when agency officials announced the six-month pilot test of Wi-Fi on the Route 54 Scott local bus, Route 204 park and ride to Spring and the Purple Line. The plan was to have it up and running within a month or two.
The service, however, did not go live until last October following a series of delays related to acquiring the right equipment and installing it on buses and trains. The pilot operated through January, just long enough for Metro officials to justify it.
“We got limited feedback, but the feedback was positive,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.
The service, a partnership with Microsoft as part of Houston’s “smart city” project, offered Internet speeds of 4MB, small by home Internet standards but typical in public locations. As similar to its use in restaurants and coffeeshops, logging on will require users to provide an email address and agree to terms and conditions.
Along bus and train routes in the pilot, the vast majority of use was by people with smartphones, with the most frequent use occurring Mondays through Wednesdays. Use of the Internet, as with transit ridership in general, dipped on weekends, and the most frequent use by riders was along the rail lines. The Purple Line is a popular route for students, as it connects to both the University of Houston and Texas Southern University campuses.
In a poll of users, Metro said 80 percent said they were satisfied with the Wi-Fi, though more than 70 percent of respondents said they wanted a faster Internet speed and better reliability of the system.
Internet service remains active on the 36 buses and 10 trains used in the pilot. For Metro officials, the focus now shifts to adding it to the entire system of 1,250 buses, 76 rail cars and 410 paratransit vans and taxis.
The board last March approved a $2.4 million contract to replace routers across the fleet. Buses and trains constantly are in contact with Metro, but the equipment has reached its useful life and officials replaced them with dual-band routers that allowed one connection for transit operators and one open for public Internet use.
Officials said the annual cost of the Internet service would be $906,000, or less than 0.15 percent of the agency’s $684 million annual operating budget for fiscal 2020.
Riders, what few were around this week, said they will use the Wi-Fi once it is active.
“Everybody doesn’t have unlimited data, so it’s nice they’re doing that,” said Camilla Knox, 55, as she walked from a 26 Cavalcade bus to the Red Line light rail along Fulton. “Especially for the students.”
Wi-Fi will be added to buses and trains grouped by their regional garage, Wendler said, and turned on as soon as all buses using that depot have routers. Transit in the area is split among five bus depots, with installation starting with routes operating out of the Kashmere garage later this year. The last location wired will be the Red Line light rail through downtown Houston, though rail was one of the most popular places to log on.
“Rail has got some unique issues,” Wendler told board members earlier this week. “We are going to have to put more than one router (on each train) because those vehicles are so long, to get a good signal.”
©2020 the Houston Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.