Metro moving toward Wi-Fi-equipped buses and trains
Metro already connects Houston-area riders to their homes, schools and jobs. In early 2019, riders along three routes also will be connected to the web as part of pilot project to make Houston a more tech-enhanced city.
Metropolitan Transit Authority is finalizing details of the pilot with Microsoft, which partnered with the city on an effort to improve internet connectivity. Microsoft is covering the costs of providing Wi-Fi for six months on some Metro buses and trains so agency officials can assess demand and refine the system.
If the pilot proves successful — and Metro can find a way to pay for it, possibly with advertising and sponsorship — then, eventually, the entire 1,200-bus fleet and 76 railcars would be Wi-Fi-enabled and free for riders. The pilot is expected to become operational in January or February.
Metro board member Cindy Siegel called the progress exciting, noting free internet is something riders have asked for even as past efforts faltered because of cost. Other officials agreed internet access could make buses more appealing.
“Certainly, on the park-and-ride routes it should attract riders,” Jim Robinson said.
Transit officials on Wednesday refined the pilot, choosing a local bus route, light rail line and commuter bus route for internet access. They settled on Route 54, which passes by the University of Houston and Texas Southern University along Scott, the Purple Line light rail from downtown to the Palm Center Transit Center, and the Route 204 park-and-ride service from downtown Houston to Spring.
The Scott route and Purple Line were chosen because of their proximity to the colleges and the high number of students who use them, said Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer for Metro.
“We wanted to make sure we were in an environment they would be more used than not,” Williams said, noting the likelihood students have smart phones.
As he waited for a Purple Line train near the George R. Brown Convention Center on Wednesday, Ray Mason, 40, said he would log on — if it worked well. His hour-long bus ride gives him plenty of time to scan his phone and read.
“Anymore, you kind of expect Wi-Fi,” he said.
All of the buses and trains along the three routes will be equipped with transponders that allow riders to log on to a public network, something Williams compared to the wireless internet available at Houston’s two airports. The Wi-Fi would be accessible on buses and trains, whether they are stopped or in motion.
The cost of the pilot is estimated at $110,220. AT&T will provide the access for the pilot, while Microsoft will equp and install Wi-Fi devices on each bus and railcar. Each vehicle would have a monthly internet access fee of up to $90.
Deploying internet on all of Metro’s buses and trains would cost about $3.3 million and come with an annual cost of about $1 million. That is tiny compared to Metro’s $626 million operating budget for fiscal 2019.
“We would have a monthly plan like your cell phone,” Williams said.
Part of the pilot will test what riders are willing to accept for access to the web, especially advertising. Williams said officials still are refining what sort of ads would be built into the system.
At some airports, users first must watch a commercial before logging on to free Wi-Fi. Other public internet has advertising on a connection page but leaves users free to surf after a single acceptance of usage policies.
Advertising long has been a source of controversy with Metro, which does not allow ads at its bus stops or stations nor in or on its trains and buses. Occasionally, transit officials explore the possibilities of ads, including initial discussions last month. Metro CEO Tom Lambert said those discussions were, in essence, talking about doing more study before coming up with a plan.
“The discussion is, do we want to go down that road and discuss it further?” Lambert said last month, a nod to the discomfort with which some have approached past discussions of paid ads.
Board members Wednesday were equally cautious about ads on people’s phones.
“Someone is getting paid to do it,” Lex Frieden said of offering free internet.
Though it is new ground for Metro, Williams said many riders — as Mason said waiting for his train — expect internet access. Separate from the pilot for on-bus logging on, Williams said Metro is exploring the idea of installing Wi-Fi at trains stations and major bus centers.
In addition to providing internet access to waiting riders, installing Wi-Fi would better equip Metro for message signs at key stops that can deliver real-time information about when the next bus is coming or display emergency information.
“We see Wi-Fi as a huge opportunity for us to connect with our customers,” Williams said.
Improving connectivity for riders is not without concerns for some board members. For example, Frieden said, if advertisers can track riders and give them information about nearby restaurants and stores, that information also can be compromised.
“Then someone else can look at that and know you are not at home,” Frieden said of location data. “There are all kinds of implications we need to think about that.”