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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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