With bus usage falling, Transport for London is being urged to look at innovative ways to woo passengers back onto the network.
One of the most commonly suggested solutions is that WiFi be introduced to the bus fleet, just as it was to Tube stations and platforms. Advocates suggest that this would prove just as popular as it did beneath ground and help attract passengers.
But would it? I’ve always been sceptical. And, it seems, so are TfL.
In July 2015 their position, as relayed by then-Mayor Boris Johnson was that:
“given the wide availability of 3G and 4G services, it is not felt that the availability of WiFi on buses would greatly enhance the overall passenger experience.”
And in June of last year, Mayor Sadiq Khan questioned the business case for such a scheme, telling AMs:
“As WiFi and mobile data, such as 4G and 3G, is now widely available across London, it makes it less cost effective for TfL to spend its own money on introducing WiFi to London buses.”
I think TfL and City Hall are correct.
WiFi on the Tube allows passengers to do things they previously couldn’t. But this isn’t the case on a bus where passengers can already use their mobiles to phone, text, browse, tweet and, if they wish, stream videos from iPlayer during their morning commute.
Installing WiFi on a bus doesn’t expand the things you can do on your journey, it just shifts the cost of doing them from individual users – who will already have a data plan with their mobile network – on to the transport provider.
While not always appreciated by advocates, bus WiFi systems use the same 3G and 4G mobile broadband connections already available via a passengers’ smartphone or, assuming it has a SIM card, tablet.
In effect, the devices which provide the connection are large versions of the mobile hotspots firms such as EE sell and so are susceptible to the same causes of weak signals and slow speeds which might mar the browsing experience on your phone.
TfL are also right that this is going to cost a lot of money.
Prices for the 4G modules start at £500 for a single, entry-level unit.
Between them, TfL and its operators own or lease 9,500 buses so would clearly be able to negotiate a discount, but even if we assume they secured an extremely generous discount of £400 per unit, that’s still an upfront cost of £950,000.
Every extra £100 per unit above our illustrative discount is another million pounds in set-up fees, on top of which there’s additional costs for the necessary data plan.
So, given the bus service already costs £600m more to run than it raises in fares revenue, it’s not surprising TfL questions whether it’s cost effective to roll out the service.
While agreeing that WiFi alone wouldn’t be enough to boost passenger numbers in London, Corbin Adler from bus connectivity specialists MobileonBoard.com tells me the firm’s 4G systems offer other services and features which could improve the passenger experience while helping generate income.
One of the innovations the firm offers is locally stored content which allows bus operators and their commercial partners and sponsors to drive awareness of specific products and services.
It also has solutions which are able to tell passengers about local stores, restaurants or other destinations close to their bus stop, or to provide departure times for nearby rail and tram services.
Such features could offer TfL’s commercial team something to exploit and potentially cover the ongoing data and running costs but if it were to deliver such a scheme in-house, the agency would still need to fund the initial set-up.
But while a TfL funded scheme looks incredibly unlikely, the good news for advocates is that the agency has been pitched by firms “that see the possibility of delivering a bus WiFi service without the need for TfL subsidy and investment.”
A paper presented to TfL’s Finance Committee shortly before Christmas says this is a proposal it thinks “is worth exploring further”.
However no provider is just going to gift a London-wide service to TfL.
Users would almost certainly have to contend with a high level of commercialisation including overt advertising and possibly even the monetisation of anonymised user data, something that doesn’t always go down well.
But even if a sustainable and politically acceptable funding model could be achieved, deploying a bus WiFi scheme still feels like a lot of effort just to replicate the same connectivity every smartphone owner already has.