Seattle Metro buses have canned Wi-Fi (Photo: Oran Viriyincy)

It seemed like a scene from the future: Step onto a bus, find a good seat, crack open a laptop, log on to the Wi-Fi and stay connected for however long it takes to get to wherever you’re going.

But a few years later, the actual reality is much different — with public transit riders instead thumbing through their smartphones, reading their Kindles or browsing on tablets connected to mobile broadband networks.

The increased adoption of smartphones, coupled with the emergence of iPads and other tablet computers, means that the need for available Wi-Fi while commuting is dissipating. That decline in demand is also reducing the supply.

Seattle and King County transit officials seem to agree: the availability of Wi-Fi on public transportation has actually decreased in recent years.

In 2005, King County announced the testing of Wi-Fi services on Metro buses, which has since been cancelled. However, Sound Transit has adopted a free Wi-Fi service on 34 of its express buses, but only on buses which primarily service two routes and account for roughly 20 percent of Sound Transit bus riders. (Although this service exists, a Sound Transit representative confirmed that they do not plan on implementing Wi-Fi on additional buses).

Unlike its land counterpart, water transportation has adopted a paid model.

Currently, 15 Washington state ferries and 11 of 14 terminals offer Wi-Fi for a fee. For $9.95 per month, through service provider Boingo, Wi-Fi users have access to unlimited Internet usage on up to two laptops on all Washington state ferries and the additional 50,000+ hotspots throughout North and South America.

While the service appears to be widely accepted among passengers, frequent riders say that using a cell phone for checking email and surfing the Internet suffices.

Seattle isn’t the only city that seems cautious in adopting Wi-Fi services among public transportation. In 2008, city officials began testing Wi-Fi services on San Francisco’s BART system, and in 2009 announced a planned expansion.

Early announcements claimed that the expansion project would conclude by the end of 2010, but they have not made any advancement since early 2009. BART currently offers Wi-Fi services through an underground tube that spans a half mile, and at four stations spanning roughly one mile.

Since the testing and implementation of the Wi-Fi service, however, BART has made agreements with major cellular carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, T-mobile, and Verizon, and has begun implementating cellular service through the underground portions of the commute.

With plans to create continuous cellular coverage throughout the entire BART system, expansion of cellular service has continued and is expected to be completed by the end of 2011.

Contrary to the lack of local transportation systems’ Wi-Fi adoption, national systems continue to expand their services. In January of 2011, Amtrak announced that the Cascade route, which services Seattle, would offer free Wi-Fi service jointly with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

This route was the second added to Amtrak’s ‘Wi-Fi-available’ routes, following the March 2010 installment of Wi-Fi on Acela Express, which services Boston through Washington, D.C. In a recent announcement from Amtrak, they plan to expand their Wi-Fi service to more than 450 of their railcars.

Similarly, major airlines, such as Southwest Airlines, Delta, US Airways and Alaska Airlines, are adopting the paid Wi-Fi model.

Nine major airlines are now utilizing Gogo Inflight Internet Access, which is the nation’s largest in-flight Internet provider and offers an unlimited monthly plan for $39.95. Not surprisingly, among a system where passengers do not have access to cellular service, Wi-Fi availability continues to grow.

But as cellular service improves and handheld device technology develops, Wi-Fi may one day become obsolete, at least on land. And definitely on your bus route.

Melissa Kowalchuk works and volunteers in digital marketing and business development at Seattle-based startups. You can follow her on TwitterLinkedIn or on her blog.  

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  • Terri Rylander

    I guess I’m not totally surprised with mobile carrier bandwidth continually growing. 4G will begin to resemble wi-fi and will be with you almost anywhere you go – seamlessly – and not for extra daily fees.

    • Anonymous

      Totally agree. The only bummer, and I hope this won’t be an issue for most for much longer, are data usage caps. For those using their smartphones/tablets on a 1-2 hour commute every day, they’d either have to choose their plan wisely or incur some heavy over-usage fees.

  • Guest

    Now that even iPhone can act as a wireless access point, I have a Wi-Fi network everywhere I go. Besides, public transit Wi-Fi has been notoriously spotty and, because it is a shared resource, it is untrustworthy. Remember the Firesheep debacle? Most free-Wi-Fi users still don’t use a VPN to protect themselves, so those users are at risk.

    • Anonymous

      Excellent point. As I researched for this article, I found that of what little Wi-Fi available on public transportation, it’s pretty poor service. Since I’m Seattle native, and haven’t done a lot of bay area travel, I was somewhat surprised to hear of their investment in underground cellular service.

  • Alex

    Who wants to carry around a chunky laptop anymore anyways?  I’d rather just take my phone (and a tablet if I had one) and access my email and internet from there if I’m on a trip or traveling from place to place.  I am, however, excited for internet on airplanes to becomes more mainstream and cheaper… :)

    • Anonymous

      Even on an airplane, unless you’re sitting in first class, it’s hard to fully open up even a small laptop! For someone who doesn’t do a whole lot of air travel, the ~$40/mo plan hasn’t really made sense, but even $12 for a one-way leg seems kind of pricey. Then, add in a connecting flight and you may have to pay all over again. I’m hoping they start including Wi-Fi as a service and not an extra add-on. Some of us just need access to email on a flight, and don’t necessarily need to do any heavy web surfing.

      • paul o

        Don’t kill Wi-Fi on planes yet! If you’re just texting, emailing friends and updating your FB status, cellular is sufficient. For real work you really need a laptop and Wi-Fi. This morning my colleague and I iterated on a slide deck while he was flying to Minneapolis. I’m not sure how you could do that without a laptop and Wi-Fi.

        • Anonymous

          You nailed it! I was saying keep the Wi-Fi on planes, but use it as a value-add rather than a service for an extra fee (wishful thinking, I know). Will also be interesting to see how 4G changes the game. I imagine that the wireless cellular modems will become more and more popular (for those of us without tablets).

          • Ryan Stanbery

            Alaska Airlines is the best airline for internet connectivity! They have equipped their entire fleet with wifi with the exception of about 6 737-400s, which is awesome. I’d say that knowing the flight will have wifi access is a huge value add for corporate travelers, regardless of price. Gogo actually offers a lot of interesting pricing options too. During the holidays last year, a few corporate sponsors provided the wifi free of charge to all Alaska flights for a couple months.

          • Anonymous

            Hey Ryan, thanks for jumping in here – was hoping I’d catch you:) All your information as a seasoned traveler (including many-a-trips to the bay area) were super helpful when I was putting this piece together.
            One question for you though, how easy is it to pull out your laptop when you’re flying? (I’m assuming you don’t fly first class to along the west coast). The last time I went I was getting sneered at by the passenger in front of me because my laptop kept hitting the back of his seat (oops).

      • FrankCatalano

        One reason it’s pricey is that in many and perhaps most cases, the airline doesn’t own the equipment. Alaska Airlines’ equipment is owned by Gogo, and Gogo sets the prices too. It’s probably the same on other carriers that use Gogo for WiFi — the airline doesn’t control the pricing or quality of service, but just offers the service (as apparently was also the case when there were once phones in planes that ran about $3-6/minute to use with phones and service then provided by AT&T).

        • Anonymous

          Hey Frank!
          Ha! I totally remember those phones and, even then, thought they were a total waste.
          I do understand that Gogo sets the prices, I’m just being optimistically hopeful that one day the airlines may foot the bill;)

        • Anonymous

          Hey Frank!
          Ha! I totally remember those phones and, even then, thought they were a total waste.
          I do understand that Gogo sets the prices, I’m just being optimistically hopeful that one day the airlines may foot the bill;)

        • Anonymous

          Hey Frank!
          Ha! I totally remember those phones and, even then, thought they were a total waste.
          I do understand your point on Gogo setting prices, I’m just being optimistically hopeful that one day the airlines may foot the bill;)

  • Martin Munguia

    Good story! There are two points missing from this discussion that have definitely influenced transit adoption of wi-fi.
    First is the average length of passenger trip. For most local bus service it doesn’t make sense to invest in wi-fi since the average passenger trip is about 5 miles, or really just a few minutes. Most riders would not have time to pull out a laptop, navigate through the startup page and do any meaningful browsing. The wi-fi you do find on transit is on more long-haul commuter trips where passengers may be riding for 30 minutes or longer. This is also the reason why you do see wi-fi continuing on trains and airplanes where passengers are captive for longer periods of time.
    Next point is budget. Public transportation is under major financial constraints these days. The fact that wi-fi on buses never got a serious foothold among customers combined with new technology that is likely to keep that market share from growing begs for this amenity to fall to the budget axe. In flusher days, perhaps the wi-fi investment might have lasted longer to see if the market developed, but not in these recessionary times.
    Thanks for the coverage!

    • Anonymous

      Hey Martin, thanks for chiming in! And you do bring up very valid points, budget being a major one. This was something I simply didn’t have time (or article length) to go into, but definitely had it in mind as I wrote this. I would imagine that city officials are probably pretty happy that wireless carriers are making internet access so available so that the cost burden falls on them (well, ultimately us).
      Trip length was another factor in ‘smartphones, tablets killing Wi-Fi’ for sure. It’s much easier to whip out a handheld device to check some emails than to haul out, and set up a laptop.

      Thanks again!

  • cranky

    It’s actually a bit disappointing.  I was thrilled when Sound Transit and King County Metro started implementing Wifi on buses.  They were slow to do it though, so it wasn’t consistently avail.  I think consistency in availability is important.  Otherwise, people will investigate other options such as cellular or 4g modems–they don’t really want to, but they’re forced to, or maybe they go back to driving, since they can’t use the bus time to be productive anyway.  Regarding paid wifi on planes–can’t wait for an option to screw the airlines like they’ve screwed me.  Rather than ‘thanking me for choosing airline x’ by providing me with free wifi, they’re charging me yet another fee.  I love you when you stay at really cheap hotels wifi is free, and when you stay at expensive hotels it cost $19/day…

  • F2eer

    Martin M. has it right – Lack of funds to build out supporting infrastructure and for subsequent o&m is “killing” WiFi on transit. Smartphones or tablets all benefit from the availability of WiFi. These devices are just another use case, adding to notebook PCs. Also, not all forms of transit lend themselves well to WiFi. The ideal scenario are long train rides or commutes on suburban buses.

  • SteVe


    Yes the trend has been receding but I think that is about to change.

    Why you ask?

    Limited data cell phone plans that charge for data usage and may be slower and the usability of inexpensive but feature rich 7 inch tablets.

    When folks discover they can save $10 or $20 a month on their cell phone bills and have a faster internet connection to boot (have you s-l-o-w-l-y tried Virgin Mobile), they might just be willing to let the local politicians they elect know that they like WiFi.

    With at little effort the quality and security concerns will be greatly improved.

    Mean while back at the ranch, the WiFi companies might just feel like supporting these decision makers out of self interest.

    Be Happy,

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