Philbrick: Internet, public transit connect with WiFi Bus
During the initial 60-day pilot phase, Sacramento’s WiFi busses visited 140 different locations each week. Photo courtesy California State Transportation Agency.

In 2019, people boarded public transportation 34 million times each day. It gets us where we need to be and provides essential transport to millions of Americans.

The internet, too, has become essential, and yet many people, especially the most vulnerable, lack access to the near-limitless resources provided by high-speed internet connectivity.

Fortunately, a unique combination of these two services has found a way to bridge this gap.

Enter the Wifi Bus.

Instead of connecting us to where we need to be physically, some transit agencies have started connecting people virtually by providing access to high-speed internet.

In California, “one in five students lacks high-speed internet access, and nearly half of all low-income households in the state do not have a broadband service at home,” according to Sacramento Regional Transit ((SacRT).

Without access, these students are unable to complete schoolwork. Similarly, the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs are unable to access critical online job-market services.

This year SacRT, which reported a system-wide ridership decrease of nearly 70%, proposed a unique plan to connect people to essential services: Deploy unused transit buses as mobile hotspots. These roaming hotspots provide free, reliable high-speed internet to underserved communities to allow students and workers access to online resources.

To accomplish this, the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) ­— which conceptualized the project — and the city of Sacramento joined forces with SacRT. They outfitted 10 WiFi buses with the tech and equipment to give free high-speed connectivity with a range of up to 1,800 feet for 3.5 hours at a time, in two locations a day.

Repurposing resources and engaging the community, Sacramento’s WiFi Bus project has managed to bridge the digital divide at a critical time. During the initial 60-day pilot phase, buses visited 140 different locations each week.

Other California agencies have followed suit. Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) is working on a similar project with local school districts. In its initial run, the MST deployed WiFi-equipped buses in 11 locations throughout Monterey County.

Additionally, the Coachella Valley Unified School District, where nine out of 10 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, has created mobile hotspots with its yellow school buses.

To facilitate the broad implementation of such programs, CalSTA published the Mobile Hotspot Playbook, which presents strategies for deploying vehicles (such as transit buses, school buses, and food trucks) as wireless broadband hotspots.

Similar pilot programs have been implemented in other states as well. Pierce Transit in Washington state, for example, initiated a program with two buses that would park in a public location during the state’s “Stay at Home, Stay Healthy” order so underserved students would have reliable high-speed internet access.

Other transit agencies and school systems, including one outside of St. Louis and one in Tucson, have brought the idea of WiFi buses to useful reality. These mobile hotspots go where internet access is most needed and serve both urban and rural communities — ensuring equitable access to online resources.

The access to high-speed internet provided by these mobile hotspots enables people to work and complete homework but it also provides individuals the chance to use social media, video chatting programs and other communication platforms that may be their only social interaction in this isolating time.

These moments, experts advise, are important to mental health and approximately a third of Americans say they have hosted a virtual social gathering to connect with friends and family since April.

Public transportation also has always evolved to meet our needs — from adding security cameras and bike racks to putting in plusher seats and now, in our nation’s time of need, public transit has stepped into a new role: Helping to educate our nation’s children.

Even when transporting people physically has been limited, transportation helps move people’s ideas and connect us in other ways.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. 

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