A recent press release from the SDNPA claims that “additional funding for 2015/16 will deliver a series of innovative new initiatives such as .. Wi-Fi on rural bus services”.
How might this be achieved?
There are three possibilities:
- Provide access points every 50 yards (say) down all the bus routes. Access points are cheap but each has to be secured, supplied with power, and connected to the internet. The cost of securing them, alone, makes the project expensive. Mains power is not accessible along substantial chunks of rural road so an alternative would be needed. The only possibility is solar. The specialist kit is expensive and requires frequent maintenance given that birds use the panels as toilets and that lead acid batteries only last a couple of years. The kit is also rather enticing to thieves so security costs would be high. And, of course, solar is impossible on some parts of rural roads (e.g., where the road passes through a wood). Finally, how do we connect all these boxes to the internet? Optical fibre is the obvious answer — but if laying optical cable down rural roads was easy and affordable then rural residents would all have 25Mbps connections today. And they don’t. The only alternative is to set it up so that each access point talks to its two neighbours. This is a limiting case of mesh networking. Mesh networks are practical in an institutional or urban environment where each box has many neighbours but, in the rural road scenario, the mesh is reduced to a single string, not a proper mesh. All the advantages of real mesh networking are lost and connection reliability would be a dire. It would fail, for example, every time a farmer drove (or, worse, parked) a large metal vehicle in the gap between two adjacent access points.
Rural roads are not railway lines. The latter have power running their entire length. Optical cable is also often present. If it isn’t, then it is easy and relatively cheap to lay (no wayleaves or easements required). Finally, railway lines greatly facilitate security. For most of their length, thieves cannot simply drive up, put a ladder to a pole, unscrew some goody, and drive off all in the space of a few minutes.
- Mount a satellite dish on every bus. Ordinary satellite dishes are very cheap. But buses are in constant motion so the dish needs to adjust its own orientation all the time. Thus one would have to fit military style units and these would each cost more than the bus itself. Connection costs would also be high — internet-by-satellite is not cheap.
- Put a mobile phone aerial on top of each bus and connect it to an access point inside the bus. This would be cheap and it would sort-of work, of course. But 3G coverage in rural areas is patchy and 4G is currently nonexistent. So it wouldn’t work well. And what would be the point? Bus passengers, even rural ones, already sit there with their smart phones checking Facebook for new pics of their grandchildren. How many would bother to connect via bus Wi-Fi rather than GPRS? If they care about such things, they will already have a 3G phone.
Rural buses are not railway carriages. People do not sit in front of laptops in rural buses. Nor will they ever.
John McEnroe had a catch-phrase that is appropriate to this silly SDNPA proposal.