Idea Bin 01: a viable model for monetized public transit wifi app

San Francisco’s Muni (light rail) does not have good wireless reception when underground. I know it’s obvious that 3G/4G signals don’t travel well under some 15-30 feet of dirt and cement. But when users are underground for 20-40 mins (on a good day) it could be useful to get some work done. And by ‘work’ I mean read our Twitter feeds (or send tweets warning others of our predicament.)


My idea would be a monetized wifi system in the tunnel, on the trains and even the bus. In a sense, anyone with a wifi enabled device would be able to connect to the web while on a vehicle or in a station.

Who it benefits

The people riding the bus/train, and those waiting for one (in a station, not necessarily at a busstop) could benefit by being able to get off the already slow 3G connection we have here and move to wifi which doesn’t count against their data cap.

The transit authority (Muni, in this case) would benefit by selling monthly upgrades to its already-in-use Clipper Card for users to access the wifi service. This is nothing new in that hotels and airlines have been doing it for awhile now. Even BART is doing it via WifiRail.

How it works

In San Francisco we are on a digital card called Clipper. Some of us have opted in for the monthly auto renewal at about $60-70 a month. This monthly pass could come with a $10 or $15 upgrade that gives you access to the Muni wifi network while you are within a vehicle or at a Muni station. A per-use or data plan could also be offered to accomodate light/heavy users.

To keep people from accessing the network and giving out the password, a unique login could be assigned to each user, and could deny multiple device logins. (If you are using your laptop and phone wifi at the same time on a bus or train in San Francisco, you are overachieving, dude.) And since I hate getting a new login for everything, a simple app could store and encrypt the login info. All the user would need to do is open the app, type in the last 4 digits on the back of their Clipper Card and the app would authenticate the session.

That last part might be tricky for some devices, but I have faith in the tech community to be able to figure it out. After all, they are still jailbreaking iPhones with ease. And frankly, it’s not a big deal if some wifi-enabled devices aren’t compatible.

The ad supported way, of course

While I was at an app expo I meet Tapjoy and saw their in-game offers where the user can view a list of brands, tap a Target offer, watch a video or ad and get some free coins for the game. Maybe something like this could support a free wifi service. The user could connect, then choose a brand from a list, see an ad (or tweet their professed love for the brand) and get 10 mins of access. Some offers could ask the user to do more and give them more time.

Already being done?

Well, yes and no. There are hosted hotspot companies offering plans for places to get a business-grade wifi setup installed, supported and managed by an off-site team (as mentioned above with WifiRail.) And maybe that’s the way to go.

What I am proposing is a system that is built for vehicles and people on the move, with an automated payment system tied to the one we are already using for Muni (Clipper.) As well as an ad-supported free version. There are a couple reasons and benefits for this:

  • Keeping the payments together means those of us that get our employer to pay for our bus passes will hopefully get the wifi charge rolled in as well.
  • Logging into a third-party system with a username and password each time would be a hassle we could forego in today’s app-centric world.
  • With the app, we could work in a second layer where Muni could send alerts to the user. How many times have we been stuck in the tunnel and the driver sits there mute as a stone? Yeah, I lost count too. It would be nice to know that a few to a dozen people on the train could get the notification and pass it on.
  • Another aspect would be a low-cost or free service for some users that is ad supported. Sending a small geo-specific ad to the user could help low-income/light users afford the service. When done right, the ad could be tied to the next stop. Example would be “Show this add for $1 off Starbuck’s coffee. Get off at Powell Station and visit us on the upper level.”
  • Another layer to the app could be social. You could set up a network of friends and get alerted whenever they are on the same train or platform, similar to Highlight. Obviously, you should be able to set this to only work during certain periods or day-parts.
  • And what if you could give the app the ability to send alerts and emergency calls to the driver/control center? A 911-type line of communication (text/voice/video) could be set up with the push of a button. Users could even use their phones to capture evidence of a crime in action, while Muni sees it live and records it. (Clearly some rights issues to work out with this feature.)
  • Another feature would work similar to Uber’s app where we could start rating the driver. The app would know which vehicle we are on and which driver number is operating it.

Creative Commons licensed

Creative Commons License
A viable model for monetized public transit wifi app by Tristan Denyer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Read more about what my Idea Bin is about, and why I am doing this.

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