Technology

Staying Connected: Is Bus Wi-Fi Right For You?

Lexi Tucker
Posted on March 7, 2019

Starbucks, McDonald’s, Barnes & Noble…it’s getting harder to find a place where Wi-Fi isn’t available. How are operators of motorcoaches and minibuses keeping up with the trend?

Always Have A Back Up

Jami Crouch, director of operations for Gold Shield Transportation in Indianapolis, Ind. says the company has had Wi-Fi available on its buses for three years. They don’t charge for it, but use it as a luxury perk.

“You have to make sure your clients understand if there’s no cell service in the area where they plan to travel, there probably won’t be reliable Wi-Fi service,” she says. Regardless of what network you are on, your provider likely does not cover certain places. “We can guarantee a clean, late model vehicle and a professionally trained chauffeur, but we don’t want to risk our reputation on something not in our direct control.”

 Joey Mills, general manager for Gold Shield’s Lexington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, operations, says they now use Verizon, but started with a different company. Coverage will be spotty sometimes, so shop around until you find what provider works best in the areas where you travel the most.

Jami Crouch, director of operations for Gold Shield Transportation in Indianapolis, Ind.

Jami Crouch, director of operations for Gold Shield Transportation in Indianapolis, Ind.

The company decided two years ago to purchase a Samsung tablet for each of its smaller vehicles to act as Wi-Fi hot spots, Miller said. These can support up to 10 users per tablet. On some long distance trips in larger vehicles, they’ll bring a few on board as a backup plan.

“These are on AT&T, so they’re on a different network in case our other carrier has spotty coverage.” GPS and ELD systems also may need to connect to the Internet, so this adds an extra layer of protection.

The clients who use Wi-Fi the most are international travelers and students. Foreign tourists often find cell service is costly outside of their home countries, so it’s easier for them to communicate on Wi-Fi. Students tend to use it for connecting to social media and to check their email. Mills notes Wi-Fi service is often written into contracts for university and tour groups. It may be a must if you’re planning to pursue that kind of business. “It does separate us from competitors, so we use it as a leg up.”

If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It

Jodi Merritt, president of H & L Charter Co. in Rancho Cucamonca, Calif., has provided Wi-Fi in her coaches for seven years. She has discovered Verizon works best in the western U.S., where they travel the most. She explains it’s great for when people want to check their email, news, and social media, but when they start to try to download video, it tends to not work as well due to the heavy data it entails.

Jodi Merritt, president of H & L Charter Co. in Rancho Cucamonca, Calif.

Jodi Merritt, president of H & L Charter Co. in Rancho Cucamonca, Calif.

She uses Verizon’s MiFi Jetpack mobile hotspots, which are portable and easy to move among buses when needed. They can support eight people at a time, so they include two to four per bus. “We use them a lot for international inbound tours because they don’t want to have to pay for sim cards, and for student youth groups. Most of our domestic tours already have data on their phone plans.”

The company charges $40 a day for Wi-Fi access for an entire bus, which works out to about $1 per passenger. This helps them recoup their costs. She also recommends speaking with your provider’s representative to streamline and lower costs. “Try to get the unlimited data plan if they offer it.”

Merritt says Wi-Fi is listed on all of the company’s brochures, and on every contract or quote they send out. “We take the ‘do you want fries with that?’ approach; that way, if they weren’t thinking about it, they now know we offer it and it helps us stand out to the groups it matters most to.”

Streaming: Make Or Break?

Kim Grzywacz, chairwoman of the Women in Buses Council (WiB) and co-owner of CIT Signature Transportation in Ames, Iowa, has used Wi-Fi in her buses for five years. It’s mostly meant for checking email and basic business functions, and giving students access to homework — not necessarily streaming.

Kim Grzywacz, chairwoman of the Women in Buses Council (WiB) and co-owner of CIT Signature Transportation in Ames, Iowa

Kim Grzywacz, chairwoman of the Women in Buses Council (WiB) and co-owner of CIT Signature Transportation in Ames, Iowa

She makes a good point: Most people have the capability to download movies and music off of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Spotify, and more straight to their devices before their trip, so they can watch them offline at any time and won’t need a super strong Wi-Fi signal.

The first provider the company used was Sprint, but they have since switched to Saucon (see LCT contributor Tom Holden’s review on lctmag.com) since it’s an ELD that runs on cellular service and can act as a hotspot. She also reiterates no matter what system or provider you have, the connection will cut in and out based on the coverage available where you are traveling. She chose Saucon mostly because she needed to meet the requirements of the ELD mandate and wanted to get all costs on one bill.

The company offers the service as an amenity within the contract clients receive, and prices it at $35 a day for the entire bus to have access. In deciding how much they would charge, Grzywacz looked at what models were being used in the hospitality and travel industries.

Making Streaming Possible

New systems are emerging to help luxury transportation companies looking to provide onboard entertainment while  generating additional revenue. These services provide an entertainment ecosystem similar to what passengers use on major airlines. This includes amenities such as basic Wi-Fi, blockbuster movies, and TV programs.

Chris Liang, director of sales for United Bus Technology (UBT)

Chris Liang, director of sales for United Bus Technology (UBT)

The UBT device acts as a localized hotspot and allows carriers the flexibility to choose one or two data providers. “Our duo technology gives operators the ability to use the carriers with the best data rates paired with the best coverage, and our proprietary software lets us balance the load and makes managing the system simple,” Liang says.

As motorcoach operators try to provide a more luxurious environment for clients, Liang believes services like the Netbox suite will help companies stand out, provide operators a way to increase revenue without raising prices, and help deliver a product the “connected” generation will feel adds much value to bus travel.

The company has partnered with Swank Motion Pictures, the largest repository of content in the world, which allows them to exclusively offer licensed rights to a large library of movies and TV shows from studios such as Disney, Paramount, and Lionsgate.

Netbox suite (Photo: UBT)

Netbox suite (Photo: UBT)

UBT has a “no contracts, no equipment to buy” model. “We know people don’t want to be locked into anything. As for devices, we recognized early on hardware was a tough thing to sell because it goes out of date so quickly,” Liang adds. Their model allows operators to sign up with a small down payment and receive the hardware as a service that will be upgraded as the technology advances. For a company that marks its third year in the industry, UBT is creating a strong presence in its market.

Operator Jorge Sanchez, owner and president of Hermes Worldwide in Denver, Colo., is one notable customer of Liang’s pleased with the WiFi coverage. “We provide it as part of our service and don’t charge extra for it. It’s not a very big cost when you break it down in terms of your revenue and cost per passenger or trip.”

Staying Speedy

Magnus Friberg, Icomera’s SVP for the Americas, says he understands the importance of speed, reliability, and security for Internet connectivity. “Our patented technology maximizes stability, uptime, and data throughput of the wireless connection by making use of all available communications networks, delivering the bandwidth on which passengers base their opinions of the service,” he says.

Magnus Friberg, Icomera’s SVP for the Americas

Magnus Friberg, Icomera’s SVP for the Americas

Icomera also offers CCTV video surveillance, GPS/fleet tracking, and ELD capabilities, all of which are vital to any luxury transportation operator. The company has a centralized connectivity platform, which will help operators eliminate the need for numerous systems.

Locally-stored infotainment content is also a feature of the system. From the Wi-Fi router’s onboard storage, content such as TV, films, games, audiobooks, magazines, and real-time passenger information — interesting facts about the route, expected arrival time etc. — are made available. These can all be viewed on the passenger’s smart device. It also reduces the coach operators’ cellular data costs.

It's hard to find someone not on an electronic device when they are traveling. Provide your clients with the connection they need.

It's hard to find someone not on an electronic device when they are traveling. Provide your clients with the connection they need.

Generally, an operator will buy the hardware from Icomera, such as the Wi-Fi router, upfront, and then pay a monthly fee to cover the system’s cellular data costs, management tools, and support. The company designs and builds its technology with operators’ future requirements in mind, and works directly with leading telecommunications industry figures, researchers, and technology institutes.

Operators can expect to see an ROI through increased ridership, especially on longer-distance routes, where services such as Wi-Fi can really win passengers over from competing operators or modes of transport.

“Our customers have publicly reported increases in passenger numbers, attributing these increases to improvements in client satisfaction that comes from passenger Wi-Fi,” Friberg says. “Operators can also increase revenue through paid premium Wi-Fi services and ad revenue.”

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Related Topics: customer service, industry vendors, in-vehicle internet, mobile internet, mobile technology, technology, vehicle technology

Lexi Tucker Senior Editor
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