Connected entertainment

Perusing a selection of recent orders for buses placed by operators big and small shows that the demand for onboard wi-fi connectivity continues unabated.

Onboard wi-fi has quickly become a staple ingredient for bus and coach passengers, but operators need to manage it carefully to control costs. Steve Banner reports

All five of the ADL Enviro200s that have gone into service with Byfleet, Surrey-based Falcon Coaches are equipped with it along with next-stop notification screens. The 13 ADL Enviro400s that have joined Stagecoach Midlands in Stagecoach Gold livery for use on its X4 service between Northampton and Peterborough have got it too, along with USB charging points.

Free wi-fi is a service expected by passengers almost as a matter of course, but providing it adds to operating costs for bus and coach companies. The price of cellular data means that those costs can easily get out of control unless steps are taken to keep them on a tight rein.

It is a hazard recognised by Stuart Window, general manager of In-CarPC.

On a ten-minute journey the passengers on a bus can use as much as 10 gigabytes of data in total if proper controls are not put in place, he points out. “You’ve got to keep a close eye on the level of usage,” he warns.

In-CarPC supplies the IBR900 router for buses which can meet the needs of up to 128 users. “However we can configure it before we send it out in such a way that only a limited number of people – 20, say – can use it at any one time and impose a per-person or per-router gigabyte download limit,” he says.

What if you want to re-configure it?

“All of our routers come with a 12-month Netcloud licence which allows you to change them via an internet portal,” he replies. “Furthermore, if you’ve got a lot of our routers on your fleet then you can change them all at the same time.”

In-CarPC also offers the new LX60 router. Suitable for up to ten users, it can be installed in executive minibuses, says Window.

“We can supply suitable antennae for our routers too and offer a pre-sales support and education and guidance in addition to the usual post-sales support,” he adds.

21st Century Technology offers a data management service designed to ensure that operators do not incur excessive charges.

Mobile Onboard can provide a management service too, says director Corbin Adler, which ensures that data usage is capped. “Otherwise operators will find that it can run away with them,” he says.

Passengers are in effect restricted to web browsing, receiving and sending emails, and social media activities. If they try streaming a high-definition film then they will find it will run excruciatingly slowly.

“Ensure your data is managed and you rarely get any nasty surprises,” he remarks.

In Adler’s experience most operators who have wi-fi installed are reasonably well-aware of data costs and the risk that they can escalate. The ones who get into difficulties are those who think they can save money simply by buying a router off the internet, sticking a SIM card in it, then putting it in a vehicle.

“They tend to be the ones who end up with data horror stories to tell,” he observes. “What they really need is a system that has been designed to meet the needs of the bus industry.”

The provision of onboard wi-fi has been steadily escalating ever since 2011/2012 and is increasingly a standard feature, agrees Paul Barnes, head of marketing at onboard router provider Icomera.

“The cost of data can be a major and painful issue though, with services such as YouTube and Netflix sometimes blocked because of the data they consume and the bandwidth they occupy,” he says.

Most bus journeys tend to be comparatively short, so passengers do not have the time to watch feature films or box sets anyway. On long coach journeys it is a different matter and it is then that another approach to managing data can be used; hosting content onboard so that it does not have to be downloaded.

“Onboard content can make perfect sense on coaches,” says Adler. Admittedly Hollywood movies can be expensive, he contends, but that is not the only content that can be offered, he points out.

“It can for example include videos about places of interest along the route that are triggered using GPS,” he says.

“We provide an onboard wi-fi and infotainment package for Gray Line in Iceland including videos triggered using GPS on its 90-plus tour buses,” says Adler. “We cover the entire country.”

The cost of providing content can often be offset by selling advertising, says Barnes, with some of the revenue going to the operator, and some of it going to the content provider. It does not make the exercise cost-neutral, he continues, but takes the operator closer to achieving that goal.

Content is becoming easier to access, he adds.

“It used to be the case that passengers had to download an app,” Barnes says. “These days however it’s increasingly browser-based.”

“Data costs can typically cost you anywhere from £20 to £75 per vehicle per month and we can generally achieve a 15 to 20 per cent reduction on this by providing onboard content,” says Sam Glover, founder and chief executive officer of LetsJoin.

Working with Lothian Buses, it has developed an innovative approach towards containing data costs while providing bus passengers with onboard content that should interest them.

The material offered on the Edinburgh-based, council-owned, fleet’s vehicles is news-based, and tends to prioritise what is happening locally rather than UK-wide or globally. “By the time somebody boards a bus in the morning they will have been exposed to the main stories of the day so there is no point in highlighting Donald Trump’s latest tweet,” Glover remarks.

Available at the time of writing was the verdict of the jury in a horrific murder trial, a report on a major fire, news of a raid by officials on a salmon farm and news that Steven Spielberg is planning to shoot a film in Scotland; but in Glasgow rather than Edinburgh. Also present are sections on fashion and lifestyle and food and drink.

“We have our own editorial team, we scan the internet for stories and we have a good relationship with local news providers,” he says.

“None of what we do is long-form,” Glover adds. “I’d describe it as snacky and I think that’s what bus passengers want.”

Best-known as a passenger data specialist, LetsJoin could offer a similar service for any city anywhere in the country and would be happy to do so. Glover finds that the gradually dwindling number of local authority fleets tend to be more open to the idea than some of the major UK-wide bus groups are.

If you are using a smartphone on a bus or coach to help keep you entertained then you may want to recharge it. Alfatronix has been producing onboard USB chargers for a number of years and can provide an onboard wireless charging system too.

In a further development, it has come up with a compact unit that offers both a wireless and a USB charging solution on a single printed circuit board. It can take 9v-32v DC from the vehicle’s electrical system which converts to 5v DC to power the wireless charging coil.

As a consequence anybody with a smartphone can use it to watch video clips without having to worry that its battery will eventually go flat, and there will be no means of recharging it.

Wi-fi is not solely there as a means of providing passengers with information and entertainment. Mobile Onboard’s BEAM wi-fi hardware can interface with any system on a bus, including its electronic ticket machines and CCTV.

Data from the former and images from the latter can be uploaded and viewed remotely.

BEAM has been developed with the introduction of BEAM Next Stop. Passengers set their destinations and receive individual alerts on their smartphones as the bus gets closer to them.

Information such as walking directions to nearby locations once the passenger has alighted can be included, and BEAM Next Stop works in tandem with onboard screens.

Such screens are still needed. Despite the number of passengers who are resolutely wedded to their smartphones and tablets, not everybody carries such a device, and not everybody spends their life constantly gazing at it if they do.

A number of companies supply information screens, including McKenna Brothers under the MobiSCREEN banner.

Available as either a 18.5in or 21.5in TFT display, it can show next-stop information, detailed route information with connections, a network map plus advertisements as an extra source of revenue.

Hanover Displays offers a 19in TFT screen that can fulfil similar roles and is available in both single- and doubled-sided guise. Additional screen sizes are available, including stretched displays and dual screens fitted side-by-side to show different content simultaneously; route information on one screen, and ads on the other.

Sound Technologies boasts the EasyGuide City Bus system which can include next-stop voice announcements as well as airliner-style on-screen maps showing the vehicle’s current location. Once again, the screen can be used for advertising.

That means the operator can earns some much-needed extra income; and the passengers can get the information they need.

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