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Free Wi-Fi On Buses Offers A Link To Future Of 'Smart Cities'

More than 600 Porto city buses and taxis have been fitted with routers to provide free Wi-Fi service. It's being touted as the biggest Wi-Fi-in-motion network in the world.

Board any city bus in Portugal's second-largest municipality, Porto, and you've got free Wi-Fi. More than 600 city buses and taxis have been fitted with wireless routers, creating what's touted as the biggest Wi-Fi-in-motion network in the world.

The service not only provides commuters with free Internet connections but it also helps collect data that makes the municipality run more efficiently.

The tech startup behind this new service is called Veniam, based in Porto and Mountain View, Calif. It calls its project the "Internet of Moving Things."

Porto is the first test market, but the company hopes to expand to several U.S. cities later this year.

Veniam's founders took NPR on a bus tour of downtown Porto to demonstrate how the Wi-Fi service works.

"Our equipment's up behind that panel in the front," above the driver's head, says Roy Russell, Veniam's chief technology officer.

Russell and his wife Robin Chase founded the car-sharing company Zipcar in Boston 15 years ago. Now, the both of them have joined Veniam.

The test of a robust Wi-Fi connection is if you can keep a Skype call up and running, with video, while moving around. So that's what we try — while careening through different neighborhoods of Porto.

Over Skype, we reach André Cardote, Veniam's engineering manager. From his office, he's able to track our bus in real time, watching its Wi-Fi router connect to RSUs — roadside units — or fiber access points scattered across the city, through which it connects to the Internet.

"We're on bus No. 1103, can you tell what's happening?" Russell asks Cardote over Skype.

"You are now connected to the RSU in the municipality building ... [then] to one of the RSUs on top of the rectory building," Cardote replies, as he watches the bus move across the city.

The fiber access point through which the Wi-Fi connects changes, but the Skype call never drops. The fiber network is owned by the city — put in place about 10 years ago to allow public health centers to communicate digitally.

Hopping off the bus, Russell points out the access points on a typical city street.

"They're generally fixed to a pole — a tiny box and an antenna — atop a lamppost or traffic light," he explains. "There's an amazing amount of little sensors and things all over the place that you don't know about."

The concept here is to offload data traffic from 3G and 4G cell networks and use this public Wi-Fi instead. That's a shift that could hurt telecom carriers in the long term.

In Porto, free Wi-Fi has become a public utility, rather than a commercial commodity.

Veniam sells the city Wi-Fi routers, and a monthly subscription. Citizens get free Wi-Fi, without having to drain their mobile data plans. In return, the city gets a host of data collected by the Wi-Fi routers from a network of sensors planted around town.

"Environmental sensors, noise sensors. ... In the end, what this project has given to the city is a lot of data," says Filipe Araújo, Porto's city councilor for innovation and environment. "We can understand where the city can save money, to invest in other projects. Waste management has the key role here."

For instance, sensors attached to garbage dumpsters tell the network when the dumpsters are full. The city saves money since it doesn't waste fuel on trips to half-full containers. It can also see which buses are stuck in traffic and reroute them, or change traffic lights in real time.

Veniam CEO João Barros says future "smart cities" will rely on this type of Wi-Fi data exchange.

"If you think about it, the cost of sending data through a cellular network is very, very high — about 20 times higher than sending the data through Wi-Fi," Barros says. "So by connecting vehicles to the Wi-Fi infrastructure, we're actually lowering the cost of sending data to the cloud — and also providing Internet access to people on the move, for example on public transit."

Many cities already have such underused fiber networks, which could be repurposed to host public Wi-Fi and receive data from sensors, he says.

"There's no such thing as too much bandwidth. You give people more bandwidth, and they will use it," Barros says. "So the future will be heterogeneous networks — some that operate statically using the Internet, others while you are moving. We are going to find ways for all these different networks to be able to operate together."

Veniam's prototype in Porto was funded by the European Union, Portuguese regional authorities, and private investors. It debuted last year, and more than 70 percent of local smartphone owners in Porto are already using it.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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