School Bus Wi-Fi, A Turning Point in Transportation Technology

As the next generation of mobile networks emerges, school transportation is still coming around with onboard bus Wi-Fi. It has been about a decade since the first 4G networks appeared in the U.S., and they have been fast enough to support real-time GPS and tracking applications on some fleets of school buses.

The networks also have been strong enough to support widespread disruption in transportation through ridesharing applications. With 5G networks emerging, there are expectations of greater advancement in augmented-reality shopping, virtual presence at live events, telemedicine and self-driving vehicles.

5G is on the Rise

Student transporters can expect a wide range of 5G applications to emerge by 2021 or 2022, according to AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. The now big-three—following Sprint’s merger into T-Mobile—are currently investing in 5G networks through initial programs in larger U.S. cities, from Los Angeles to New York City.

In the United Kingdom, FirstGroup and Blu Wireless launched a project in February on the South Western Railway, to boost connectivity on trains through 5G technology. The new technology can process data 100 times faster than 4G technology, meaning it will be easier for riders to enjoy consistent and fast Wi-Fi connectivity during their trip.

As school buses and other areas of transit become more connected with more applications, the need for 5G will grow. “There is great potential for 5G networks in the long term, as school districts start to incorporate more cameras on buses,” explained Dan Clem, a product manager at Zonar. “5G will be the best way to stream driver coaching, stop-arm violation capture, security inside and outside the bus, or any other number of use cases.”

Currently, the majority of school bus operations needs are met with existing 3G and 4G capabilities. School districts that have invested in Wi-Fi on buses are now receiving a lot in return.

Keeping Students on Track

All 71 school buses used by Raytown Quality Schools, located about 10 miles southeast of Kansas City, Missouri, are now equipped with Wi-Fi. The fleet-wide installation followed a successful pilot program that started with six buses. Technology companies Synovia and Kajeet provided the hardware and software to help the district’s transportation team track 53 daily routes via GPS in real-time.

Using an app called “Here Comes the Bus,” students know exactly when the bus will show up at their stop, and parents receive real-time notifications that their children were picked-up and dropped-off at assigned locations. The district has set up about 1,500 users on the app, which secures the data transmission from unauthorized users.

“The app gives parents peace of mind, and it’s cut down half of their calls to us,” said Kevin Easley, school transportation director at Raytown Quality Schools, who detailed the district’s experience with Wi-Fi at the 2017 STN EXPO Reno. “Now they know where their children are faster than when they called us to track down the bus and [we called] them back with an update about the location.”

Students also connect their mobile devices with the bus Wi-Fi to do homework and communicate with their teachers while riding to school. The district said it believes it has made a good investment in bus Wi-Fi, because it has increased educational minutes for students and provided more support for teachers.

Helping Districts Save Money

Shelby Eastern Schools, a small district in Indiana, uses Wi-Fi and a telematics platform to collect data from its bus fleet and identify inefficiencies. Using Zonar’s Ground Traffic Control system, the district was able to analyze its routes and fuel usage to identify cost savings. It also helped the transportation team spot-check drivers, to verify if they were following safety procedures while on the road.

It took less than a month for the transportation team to calculate the cost of its 19 routes, in terms of time, fuel and labor. The district found that by eliminating one route and restructuring other routes, it would save about $80,000 in operational costs for the upcoming academic year. And then every year after that.

“The savings made a significant impact,” said Katrina Falk, assistant transportation director for the rural district. “We were able to justify a pay increase for our contracted drivers.”

A few other benefits: An analysis of their diesel-powered fleet proved to the school board that the current fleet of buses could run more efficiently than replacing them with alternative fuel vehicles. And by monitoring school buses on their routes, the team can make sure the drivers are going the speed limit, following proper railroad crossing procedures and activating stop-arms.

Realizing Other Benefits of School Bus Wi-Fi

Respondents to a survey conducted this summer by School Transportation News described their expectations and uses for Wi-Fi on their school buses.

For the upcoming year, the Wamego School District in Kansas equipped its buses with Wi-Fi to run a surveillance program from Transportant. The system integrates cameras with live streaming video, audio, and GPS with an application, so that operations can track buses and monitor student behavior.

In Charleston, West Virginia, the school buses that are equipped with Wi-Fi are used to create hotspots in the community, where there are no internet connections. Over the last several years, the buses have been placed at football games, so students and parents can fill out college paperwork for financial aid. They also discovered that having Wi-Fi on the buses occupied students and improved behavior on long trips.

But the survey also showed that many districts don’t have Wi-Fi capability on school buses. It’s part of an issue referred to as the digital divide between students with and without access to new technology at home.

Push to Get Bus Wi-Fi

Some federal lawmakers want to ensure that all students have internet access, and school buses are proposed as the guaranteed place to access a connection for homework. A bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, would require the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program to reimburse school districts that install Wi-Fi technology on school buses.

If passed into law, it could help close the technology gap and provide districts with greater capability to tap into applications. And it would come at an opportune time for school districts to leverage powerful mobile communication and technology advances that will soon be made possible by 5G networks.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the STN September 2019 issue.