Wi-Fi on public transport faces access, monetization road bumps

Service providers need to find ways to boost Wi-Fi signals in poor reception areas, and also pick the right monetization model, in order to achieve good commuter uptake and satisfaction.

Strong growth in mobile device adoption and rapidly developing IT infrastructure in the region will mean that more Asian cities will start offering similar Wi-Fi access.

More Asian markets are looking to introduce Wi-Fi on their transport systems given that it would improve commuter satisfaction and boost overall GDP growth. Service providers would have to contend with providing Wi-Fi access through areas with poor signals and whether to charge for the service, which would impact uptake of such services.

Naveen Misra, telecommunications principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan Asia-Pacific, said more countries here are starting to offer Wi-Fi services on public trains and buses to provide entertainment for commuters on long-haul trips and improve customer service, as well as boost the country's GDP growth by enhancing mobile workers' productivity.

Strong growth in mobile device adoption and rapidly developing IT infrastructure in the region will mean that more Asian cities will start offering similar Wi-Fi access, Misra added.

Already, China and Japan are two markets which have initiated such Wi-Fi projects. The Chinese government in 2012 partnered China Mobile to introduce a pilot project to providing wireless network access on public buses in Beijing .

Tokyo Metro in April this year also introduced a free Wi-Fi service trial at 30 of its train stations. Commuters are able to enjoy the free Wi-Fi service once they download and register for the company's mobile app.

When quizzed, the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) told ZDNet Asia that it too is working with local authorities to explore the feasibility of providing Wi-Fi on its train and buses services.

"In tandem with the growth in ridership, we also see a corresponding increase in demand by passengers for more services on the go," said Jason Chin, information technology director of SMRT.

Access, monetization issues to consider
The growing interest to provide Wi-Fi on public transport may have its benefits, but service providers will know such deployments are not without their challenges, Misra said.

One such challenge is providing wireless access in areas of poor connectivity. The analyst said a train or bus is constantly moving and some of these would go into places with weak to no Wi-Fi signal for a prolonged period of time, particularly in rural areas.

"This scenario is quite likely as many parts of Asia are still not wired up and their IT infrastructure may not be as mature as the U.S. or Europe," he pointed out.

A possible solution would be to plan the routes with accompanying 3G or 4G network coverage, so users can switch to these options when the Wi-Fi signal is weak, he suggested.

Monetizing the Wi-Fi service is another challenge for service providers looking into deploying Wi-Fi service on public transport, and there are many areas for consideration, Misra said.

For instance, if a transport company decides to make customers pay for Wi-Fi, it has to ensure the connection is strong. It can also offer a hybrid model in which the service is free for a limited period of time, before charging people for their usage, he noted.

Alternatively, if the service provider wants to make the service free, it should consider limiting online activities such as viewing YouTube videos so that bandwidth is more evenly shared among commuters. To decide this, it needs to examine the demographic of its passengers, how developed the country is in terms of smartphone penetration, and what kind of Internet access it wants to offer users, he explained.

"If the appropriate model is not chosen, the transport company may face backlash from consumers on poor customer service and a bad travelling experience," the analyst said.

Singapore-based commuters who spoke to ZDNet Asia were adamant they would not pay for Wi-Fi on public transport, though.

Student Jasper Tan said he hopes Wi-Fi will be installed as the 3G and 4G signals tend to be "weaker" underground. He did not, however, see the need to pay for Wi-Fi on public transport.

"Singapore already does not charge users for its public Wi-Fi so I don't see why trains should," Tan said.

Marketing executive Peggy Lee added Wi-Fi on public transport would be "useful" as her mobile data cap is "rather low" which restricts her usage. "Between paying for better connection or using Wi-Fi free but getting a slower connection, I will pick the latter since I'm rarely on trains and buses for more than an hour," she said.