On-board Wi-Fi arrive on buses in U.S., abroad

Stay connected anywhere from New York to St. Petersburg.

Published September 26, 2008 4:52PM (EDT)

About three years ago, when I finished my master's degree at Columbia University, I penned a thesis chronicling the story of the Chinatown buses, and all of its craziness. Aside from all of the insane competition, vice and murder (go read my thesis), those buses are pretty standard -- they get you where you need to go quickly and cheaply. But when traveling by bus, it can be difficult to be productive while on the road, as there's no Internet on-board. But just as Internet is now getting rolled out on more and more planes, Internet on long-distance buses is coming soon as well.

Last year, I reported for the World and for Wired News about the world's first cross-border international Wi-Fi-enabled bus line between Tallinn (Estonia) and Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia. Estonian Wi-Fi evangelist Veljo Haamer collaborated with an Estonian bus line, Hansa Buss, to bring Internet access to the nearly four-hour trip.

But just the other day, Veljo sent me a message from yet another cross-border bus line -- but this time to the east instead of the south. Thanks to Veljo's efforts, Eurolines, a major European bus company, now offers free Wi-Fi on its Tallinn-St. Petersburg routes, a journey of about seven hours. He also reports that each seat comes with power plugs, so you don't have to worry about having to put away your laptop after only a couple of hours. Fan-freaking-tastic!

If you're stateside, fear not -- there are now loads of bus companies up and down the Atlantic seaboard that are offering on-board Wi-Fi as well. Both the New York Daily News and, more recently, the New York Times are reporting on all of the bus companies that are adding Wi-Fi to their routes.

Here's the Daily News on the mechanics of setting up Wi-Fi:

Not only does BoltBus offer free Wi-Fi, but MegaBus, a subsidiary of Coach USA, recently launched its East Coast routes with similar discount promotions as well as Wi-Fi service.

The Chinatown buses are following suit. Eastern Travel of Chinatown, which focuses on the Washington route, just finished installing Wi-Fi devices on all of its 12 buses last month. And now most of the major Chinatown companies that cover the Washington and Boston routes are considering doing so, according to Cheng.

"Seventy percent of our passengers book tickets online, so we realize that Internet must be very important to them," he said. "We'll have all the services Greyhound has and ours will be better."

They'll be joining an increasingly crowded field. DC2NY, a company founded last July by a former Marriott exec offering bus service to Washington for $25 one way, was first with Wi-Fi on that route.

It's such a popular offer that the company estimates 75% of its passengers board with laptops in hand.

"There is a generation that's growing up with Wi-Fi access virtually wherever they go," said Walter Gill, DC2NY's marketing director. "I don't think we'd have the ridership that we have if we didn't have Wi-Fi."

For companies fighting to keep fares low, Wi-Fi's costs hurt.

Eastern Travel planned to install a TV and wireless satellite system on every bus to get a better signal, but it would have cost $5,000 per bus. It ended up with a satellite device on one bus and cellular routers costing $1,500 each for the rest of its vehicles.

There are a few local bus lines in the U.S. (and France) that have been experimenting with on-board Wi-Fi for some time now, but having access on longer trips is definitely pretty clutch.

By Cyrus Farivar

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